The latest film from Mike Judge, Idiocracy, is not at all the unfunny flop that you might expect from its very limited release this weekend. I saw the film in a full theater in South Austin, with an audience that laughed frequently and appeared to be quite entertained by it. Afterwards, I watched Austin Movie Show gather people's reactions, and I didn't hear a single negative remark.
Idiocracy's plot, although slim and occasionally propped up by voice-over narration, holds up better than that of Judge's previous feature, Office Space. Military slacker Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) and hooker Rita (Maya Rudolph) sign up for a top-secret experiment to be frozen in suspended animation for a year. Due to a mix-up with the officer in charge (whom I believe but can't confirm is one of the Bobs from Office Space), they aren't thawed out for 500 years. In the interim, the intelligence of American society has been decreasing -- we've become a nation of total nitwits who sit around watching TV shows like Ow! My Balls!, and movies consisting of a naked ass farting for two hours (called, appropriately enough, Ass). When it's discovered that Bauers has the highest IQ in the country, he's appointed to a Cabinet post and expected to solve, well, everything.
Idiocracy's setup is essentially an excuse for a lot of gags. Fortunately, the gags are hilarious. I don't recall ever hearing my husband laugh so loudly in a theater, and we've seen Little Miss Sunshine and Talladega Nights together recently. Stupid characters are usually a turn-off, but in this movie they're so completely and surrealistically dumb that you can't help laughing, whether they're spouting crazy malapropisms, flipping everyone off (a gesture of affection in the future), or simply standing there staring at Joe and Rita with a look of complete vacancy. Many actors in this movie mastered the slack-jawed look perfectly.
The visual gags are as funny as the acting and the dialogue: Unfinished highways where cars keep driving over the edge and piling up on the bottom, appalling misspellings everywhere, a Costco the size of a small city (I guess they couldn't get permission from Wal-Mart), a childish but amusing gag involving Fuddrucker's, and the way all the digital clocks in the background are flashing 12:00. And then there's the Starbucks ... you will never hear the term "hot latte" in the same way again. The future is a very, very dirty place, with garbage as far as the eye can see, which seems quite believable.
I didn't much like the way that especially stupid people are referred to as "retards" and "tards" in the future, but fortunately this didn't happen often enough to be annoying. The characters in the future also use "fag" and "faggy" as pejoratives ... for someone who sounds or acts intelligent. So I am not at all sure that this is actually gay-bashing, since it implies that gay people are smarter.
Luke Wilson is oddly appealing as Bauers, the poor schmuck accidentally sent 500 years into the future. I haven't enjoyed watching him this much since The Royal Tenenbaums. Maya Rudolph is a bit one-dimensional as Rita the hooker, but her character grows on you after awhile. Dax Shepard, as Wilson's "lawyer" Frito, appears to have modeled his voice on the Judge-created character Butthead, and makes a very convincing dumbass. I also liked Terry Alan Crews (Big T in Baadasssss!) as President Camacho. Stephen Root's cameo as a judge is not as funny as I hoped it would be, but Thomas Haden Church has a cute scene as the CEO of a company that manufactures the sports drink that's been universally substituted for water.
The movie itself does not reveal any obvious clues about why Twentieth Century Fox chose such a limited release. Maybe they thought stupid people would be offended by the opening sequence theorizing (in a broadly comic way) that society is growing dumber because people with lower IQs are breeding like rabbits while higher IQ people aren't having kids. Maybe they thought that the inability of future Americans to pronounce the word "nuclear," as well as their habit of mispronouncing words or substituting words that sound alike but mean entirely different things, was a subtle commentary on the current U.S. President. Perhaps they didn't like the depiction of the FOX News of the future, although The Simpsons includes cracks like that nearly every week about their parent network.
Idiocracy reminded me a lot of Woody Allen's 1973 film Sleeper -- the basic plot is the same, although each movie creates a future that reflects the contemporary society of the filmmaker. Allen's futuristic world included sterile white rooms full of dumb people posing as intelligent and quoting Rod McKuen; Judge's future shows us a garbage-stuffed dump full of morons watching the Masturbation Channel and sucking down supersized containers of food they don't even have to chew. Idiocracy may not be a cutting-edge satire, and I don't know whether it will be seen in 20 years as terribly dated or as a hip snapshot of our decade's culture, but it's not at all a bad movie. Not one of the more memorable comedies of our time, certainly, and not for all tastes -- it's an unabashedly elitist film that includes fart jokes. At any rate, Fox has released much unfunnier comedies this summer. So the mystery of why Idiocracy isn't playing nationally still remains -- maybe Judge will reveal all in good time.