Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
There’s a piece of folk wisdom about sci-fi movies that goes like this:
“Good sci-fi movies are actually about the present, not the future.”
There’s a piece of folk wisdom that’s not so well known, but which I think is just as accurate:
“The message of all good sci-fi movies is: We’re fucked.”
When is Mike Judge finally going to get his props as one of the greatest American satirists alive? The man is constantly being underrated. First he came out with Beavis and Butthead, one of the weirdest phenomena of all time. Beavis and Butthead was about two irredeemable teenage idiots who watched MTV all day and wasted everything living in the richest country in the history of the world had given them. It also aired on MTV and was watched religiously by an audience mostly comprised of teenage idiots who watched MTV all day and wasted everything living in the richest country in the history of the world had given them. It was absolute genius, one of the most secretly sophisticated shows of all time. You could never quite tell if the humor on the show was meant to be sophomoric, or if it was meant to make fun of sophomoric humor (history, as witnessed by Mike Judge’s post-Beavis career, has shown it was the latter). Either way, it was funny, and was probably the first and only TV show where the primary action of the protagonists was…watching TV. Beavis and Buthead never really got the critical recognition it deserved because the overwhelming number of glue sniffers who watched it made it hard to see the razor-sharp double edge of the show.
Then came King of the Hill. I’ve never watched an episode, so we’ll skip it.
Then came Office Space. Ah, Office Space. The very definition of a sleeper hit. Everybody knows the story here: totally ignored both critically and commercially, it’s become a massive hit and a cultural touchstone on DVD. Pretty much everybody’s experience with Office Space came when a friend said, “Hey, remember that crappy movie with Jennifer Anniston and the third wheel from Swingers? It’s actually awesome.” The office environment had been a woefully neglected target for vicious satire for years, virgin territory just sitting there, ripe for someone to figure out a way to show just how bad things have gotten for most white collar workers. Office Space was there. The popularity of both the UK and US versions of The Office (did you know that there’s also a French and German version now?) tapped into this–and perhaps did it more thoroughly–but Mike Judge was there first.
Now comes Idiocracy, a movie that seems like it’s being specifically groomed to be another underground DVD hit. Idiocracy’s apparently been sitting on the shelf for quite a while. It was released, I think, with no critics’ screenings, with almost no advertising–everything that normally says a studio has made a total stinkbomb and just wants to get rid of it and move on. There’s only one problem–a totally predictable problem, if you’ve followed Mike Judge’s career: it’s a freakin’ brilliant satire.
Idiocracy is about an underperforming everyman (played by Luke Wilson with the same sleepy, low-key charm Ron Livingston brought to Office Space) who’s cryogenically frozen, forgotten about, and accidentally re-thawed hundreds of years later. Why was he forgotten about? Was there some kind of war that destroyed the records of his being frozen? Has Earth suffered some kind of terrible calamity? No–people literally forgot about him because they’ve gotten so stupid.
Judge takes the present trajectory American culture is on–the culture of US Weekly, NASCAR, Paris Hilton, Maxim, a country where 95% of the population thinks that reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code makes you a formidable intellectual–and extrapolates where it’s headed in a couple hundred years. The results are frightening–and frighteningly accurate. Men sit in their apartments stupefied, immersed in a television show about a guy who gets kicked in the nuts repeatedly. Doctors in hospitals, check you in by pressing a button on a register with a picture of what’s wrong with you, like cashiers at Burger King. People ride jetskis in the Reflecting Pool on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The President is a rapper/porn star. It’s all so real. It’s all so true. If you don’t think this is where we’re headed, you’re incredibly optimistic.
Actually, if you don’t think this is where we actually are, at least in the Red States, then you’ve probably ignored the news for the last five years. This is an angry film. It’s also hysterical. I don’t know what else to say without ruining all the good jokes. It’s worth seeing this with an audience–you don’t get a chance to have a good, guilt-free laugh at the movies very often nowadays. There. That’s the point of this review. Idiocracy is highly, highly recommended by this viewer.
Why has the studio tried to bury this film? The answer probably has something to do with the fact that Mainstream America should be very shamed by this film. It’s probably not welcome news to be shown how insensitive, anti-intellectual, base, and boorish your behavior is (even if it’s totally true). So I guess they figured they weren’t going to sell very many tickets to the Wal-Mart shopping/ Time Magazine with Jesus on the cover/ Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector crowd. Mike Judge is perfectly named: he is judging us as a country to live in. And we’re guilty of being retarded. And he shows us why he’s right.
Just wait for the DVD, though. This will be a huge Blue State hit. Mark my words.
Mike Judge is primarily thought of, I think, as a writer. Comedy is the one genre where people still actually give the writer credit for coming up with all the good shit that’s on-screen. Given the spareness of his productions (crude drawings in Beavis and Hill, bland offices and apartments in Office Space), I kind of always thought of him as a “point and shoot” director who lets his writing speak for itself, a la Kevin Smith. It turns out I’m wrong. Mike Judge is actually a much better director than you think. A recent re-viewing of Office Space revealed this. It may be obvious to point out that the boring, pedestrian visuals of Office Space was the point, since we have an Everyman who’s living in a world that’s been rendered completely boring, pedestrian by over-corporatization, but the point is still totally valid.
I thought that maybe this was an accident, a stroke of good luck on Judge’s part. The movie’s subject matter called for pedestrian visuals, and that’s what any hack director could have provided. But go a little deeper into Judge the Director, and you’ll find a truly formidable artistic intelligence at work. Look at the performances. Specifically, look at the casting. When you watch Office Space, you don’t see the kinds of character actors you see in every other movie of its type. The kinds of people you can’t name, but you’ve seen a million times. The Fat Guy. The Nerd. This is what we get at typical American comedies nowadays–the same damn character actors turn up in every Will Ferrell-Vince Vaughn-Ben Stiller-Owen Wilson vehicle. But the office workers in Office Space–Lumbergh, Milton, Michael Bolton–I couldn’t tell you where I’ve seen them before, because I feel like I haven’t. You get the sense that most comedy directors just pick up the headshots at Central Casting and are done with it, whereas Mike Judge takes six months to go on a nationwide search. Which is what an artist who cares about his vision does. Now it very well might turn out that some of the actors in Office Space are the hard-working character actors who turn up in five movies a year. But even if they are, their small parts are so sharply written, so well-acted, so perfectly drawn, so much more precise than the normal comic stereotypes (while still, paradoxically, remaining fairly broad), that it at least feels like I’ve never seen them before. That’s a neat directorial trick.
Please see this movie.