Dir. Mike Judge, U.S., 2006
by Justin Stewart
Finally, Mike Judge’s “butchered,” “buried” second feature shrugs its way into widespread availability, ready-equipped with that most special of features: potential cult status. It comes in an aesthetically unappealing DVD package, from the dearth of supplements (a few very brief deleted scenes) to the garish yellow cover featuring an image of star Luke Wilson, shrugging as if mimicking Fox’s out-to-lunch bungling of the movie’s paltry theatrical release (it skipped most cities, including New York). Idiocracy has its flaws in spades, but the studio’s treatment of Judge seems more than a little like a smack in the face after his television successes for the network and the slow-rising success of Office Space. The latter slugged out its own niche popularity on video; you find it with only a smidge less regularity than The Big Lebowski on every Joe College’s movie shelf. But what are you gonna do? From all accounts, Fox at least tried several variations of ads and trailers before finally dumping it due to audience reactions varying from nonplussed to offended—apparently some people didn’t cherish being called idiots.
Marketing aside, it’s difficult to ascertain what’s been switched or slashed by the studio in the version we see here. Judge has been mum on the subject, taking the high road of professional courtesy despite the repeat offense (Office Space‘s handling previously raised his ire). His silence could just be a clever dodge—the movie’s successes must be his own, while the owner of blame for the defects and bombs could be anyone. A smug, ubiquitous narration (performed with the same voice heard on any trailer that pretends to be serious drama or sci-fi at first but turns out to be [record skip sound] screwball!) certainly feels gummed on. And the “uplifting” final speech, even with its many jutting middle fingers, doesn’t quite sit right with the pessimism of what’s come before. Despite what feels like obvious interference, it’s clear that there was no Ambersons massacred here. Idiocracy is too thin and one-note to match the tone of universal resonance that Office Space hit, and an hour of Beavis and Butthead has as many laughs. But for sharpness of sting and bullseye accuracy of target, Judge’s satire can hang comfortably with sloppy irreverent spit-takes like Putney Swope or Romero’s Land of the Dead.
Wilson plays Joe Bauers, an army schlep with a desk job whom tests have determined to be the most average man in the military, possibly the world. This makes him a stable guinea pig for the testing of a new hibernation chamber that will keep him alive but catatonic for an indefinite period of time. A similarly mediocre female companion, Rita (Maya Rudolph), is located in the “private sector.” She’s actually a hooker whose boss the head of the project befriends in the movie’s first really funny bit (“A pimp’s love is very different from that of a square.”) Though they are only supposed to be frozen for a year, “human error” intervenes, and they wake up in 2505. Joe wakes to a world gone to shit, run and populated by morons due to the present phenomenon of the uneducated and derelict breeding at rates fantastically higher than their counterparts. Because of the dumbing down, the previously mediocre Joe and Rita are now the smartest people alive. After a stint in prison for being “unscannable” (all citizens sport an identifying tattoo on their wrist), Joe is recruited by the ragtag government as the new Secretary of the Interior, and asked to fix everything (the crops, fed by the sports-drink Brawndo, “what plants crave,” are dust; leaning buildings are held together with twine; highways go nowhere as cars careen over precipices; swaying piles flood the cities with garbage). Meanwhile he continues hunting down an alleged time machine that’ll take him home.
Idiocracy‘s returns diminish as its 84 minutes tick by. Nothing’s quite as fun as Joe’s first brush with his new environs. He meets Frito (a slack-jawed Dax Shepard), who will turn out to be his lawyer, after his vessel crashes into his house as Frito sits on his toilet-configured recliner, sucking from a liquid snack bucket, taking in an episode of “Ow! My Balls!” Outside, Joe walks by St. God’s Memorial Hospital and passes a billboard (SO BIG!! MONDO—ITS BAD). When he confronts a stranger with his problem, his plainspoken questions are dismissed as “faggy,” in the first of a series of such accusations. Those in positions of power (cops, judges) mask the fact that they’re equally as stupid as everybody else by reading scripted sentences laced with “smart” buzz words like “particular individual” (or, “We’re engaged in procure your tattoo.”) It’s Judge’s soft attack on the kind of empty jargon that authority uses to cloud sinister purposes.
Maybe Idiocracy‘s most biting jab is that it never once, outside of a quick reference to a past organization known as the U.N. (“the un”), mentions the existence of any other country besides “America.” Whether the rest of the world is better or worse off, or if they’ve all just been subsumed due to a combination of dumbing down and rampant Americanization, is up for speculation (assuming an explanation isn’t among the axed bits). Hubris and megalomania walk hand in hand with ignorance, a point sledgehammered home by the character of Camacho, the President of America. As played by Everybody Hates Chris’s Terry Crews, Camacho is a musclebound, silken-haired, psychotic former wrestler who enters presidential appointments to blaring rock and fog machines, and spends his speeches dancing, flicking off constituents, and firing his gun into the air to silence dissent. Like everyone else, he wears only roomy tracksuits, though his stars-and-stripes patterns and enormous presidential medallion set him apart from the advertisement-spangled rabble. Camacho might be Judge’s most ridiculous creation yet; you’d have to go back to Beavis and Butthead’s military jock gym coach to locate such vehement parody.
The movie’s art design is an endearing hodgepodge of ingredients; the disastrous effects of extreme neglect are everywhere, but there are also compact, sleek (if dirty) cars and insane multiscreened TVs—it is still the future, after all, and luxury item technology has advanced unabated. You can’t chalk up all of Idiocracy‘s gaudy ugliness (all browns, oranges, and reds) to sardonic prophecy—a few of the CGI backdrops are plain fakey, and other set pieces are Theodore Rex bad. But it never sacrifices cleverness, even through the drab demolition derby finale (featuring a bearded Andrew Wilson as flame shooter Beef Supreme). There’s a great biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you moment when a TV cuts to Fox News, and the two anchors are a shirtless, orange-tanned bodybuilder and a chesty bimbo. Slim revenge, considering the movie’s fate, but Judge has made it clear that he’s above bitter fitfulness. The studio’s dismissal of the movie was unfortunate, if not extraordinary. For now it’s enough to be thankful that such a trenchant, weird satire is finally available and poised to gain whatever cult status it deserves.