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An intelligent take on stupidity reborn

January 07, 2007|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

STUDIOS abandon and manhandle movies all the time, operating under the assumption that some films will benefit most from a cut-and-run release: a kind of cost-effective euthanasia for terminal cases. But 20th Century Fox's treatment of Mike Judge's "Idiocracy" was no mere dump job -- it had the whiff of outright sabotage.

It's curious enough that a film of this pedigree -- the first feature in seven years from the writer-director behind "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "King of the Hill" -- would even be a candidate for the clearance bin. Judge provided this very studio with the 1999 word-of-mouth favorite "Office Space" (which flopped on release but went on to cult-like success in its DVD afterlife) and had presumably built up some corporate goodwill thanks to his long-running Fox TV series.

But that counted for nothing when "Idiocracy" opened Labor Day weekend, without the benefit of press screenings or a marketing campaign, in a mere six cities nationwide. (On the West Coast, it played only in Los Angeles). The film took in a dismal $450,000 -- not surprising given the total absence of ads and trailers and that many reviewers bought into the received wisdom that unscreened movies are duds and panned it accordingly. (This paper's Carina Chocano was one of its lonely champions.)

The disregard was so pervasive that some bloggers have speculated that Fox actively set out to bury "Idiocracy." On Moviefone, the film was mysteriously listed as "Untitled Mike Judge Comedy."

The premise of "Idiocracy," out on DVD Tuesday, is simple and relentlessly enforced: America is the land of the dumb -- and getting dumber fast. Joe (Luke Wilson), an unassuming, thoroughly nondescript slacker, is selected by the military for a cryogenics experiment. Along with a female counterpart, a prostitute played by Maya Rudolph, he is to be frozen for a year. But when the Army base is replaced by a Fuddruckers, the slumbering subjects are forgotten for centuries. When Joe finally wakes, in 2505, he's literally the smartest person on Earth.

It may be that this stinging satire of imbecility hit too close to home for the studio suits. More likely, it was perceived as too insulting for the target demographic. Few American comic talents handle stupidity more intelligently than Judge. "Idiocracy" is not a dumbed-down comedy but a comedy about dumbing down -- an important difference. Its future is a richly imagined dystopia of butt-headedness. The population is so mentally deficient it has lost the capacity for basic self-sufficiency. Garbage mountains loom everywhere. Crops are dying. Water has been replaced by a fluorescent-hued sports drink. ("It's what plants crave," the ad slogan promises.)

The film is packed with throwaway sight gags and incidental jabs. Judge details the farcical degradation of the medical, judicial and education systems (Costco offers law degrees) and takes particular relish in envisioning a trash-saturated popular culture (near-naked Fox News anchors, a gory gladiatorial spectacle known as "Monday Night Rehabilitation"). America is more than ever a fast-food nation. Carl's Jr. appears to have merged with everything, including the government. In keeping with the overall mood of frat-boy regressiveness, Starbucks has diversified into the sex trade, with menu items such as "full body lattes."

What's more, there is a political point here. "Idiocracy" argues that it's in the interest of the rich and powerful to perpetuate the stupidity, or at least the unquestioning obedience, of the public. Despite the film's obvious misanthropy, there are traces of the class consciousness that fueled "Office Space," an ode to cubicle drones that was essentially "Bartleby the Scrivener" for the age of late capitalism.

"Idiocracy" is not without suspect moments. Its opening montage, which proposes that the stupid are outbreeding the smart, veers awkwardly into eugenics. But Judge's anger at the debased state of American cultural and political life is genuine. It's a contemptuous film, but as with "Borat" (incidentally, also a Fox release), its meanness is focused and cathartic. "Idiocracy" spells out, over and over, what "Borat" amply demonstrates: Stupidity, even when it's funny, can be scary and dangerous.

Its nonrelease may have only enhanced the film's cult status. Maybe that was the plan all along: botch the theatrical run to pique interest in the DVD. If that's so, does that make Fox even stupider or just pretend stupid? Judge could probably explore the distinctions in a hilarious movie. But he shouldn't try to make it for a studio.

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