(Originally published in OC WEEKLY, Wednesday, September 13, 2006)
I sat through Mike Judge’s new comedy, Idiocracy, struggling to suppress my laughter. It was an evening screening, just a few days after the film opened, and there were only four people in the entire theater: me, a grim, sixtysomething couple, and a very old man who wandered out after five minutes looking utterly baffled, like he’d come there expecting to see D.W. Griffith’s latest. The film hit me with one hilarious gag after another, but every time I giggled, I honestly felt rude for disturbing the shrine-like quiet of the place. I kept imagining the sixtysomethings peering over their shoulders in the dark, hissing, “Listen, we came here to enjoy a comedy, so will you please knock off all that damn laughing?”
The film follows Joe (Luke Wilson), a career slacker working in a seldom-visited Army library. One day his truly remarkable averageness and lack of family ties get him noticed by his Army bosses, and he, along with a sleazy but winsome hooker named Rita (Saturday Night Live polymorph Maya Rudolph), are selected to take part in a cryogenics experiment that’s supposed to put them to sleep for one year. Of course, things don’t quite work out according to plan, and Joe and Rita are revived in the year 2505, where they discover that humanity has devolved to a truly wretched state.
A grimly funny sequence early in the film illustrates humanity’s sorry downfall by chronicling two modern couples: one, a pair of smart, strenuously polite yuppies, spends so long dithering about whether having kids would be a prudent idea that they never get around to actually reproducing, while the other couple is a pair of braying redneck beasts who breed like rabbits that have OD’d on Levitra. By 2525, the hillbillies have inevitably taken over the earth, and the lunky Joe and dippy Rita now find they are the most intelligent humans alive.
The film takes us on a tour of a vividly realized, nightmare America—or “Uhmerica”—where the streets are piled high with mountains of uncollected garbage, astonishingly crass corporate advertising assaults the senses (Fuddruckers has now dropped all pretense and just calls itself Buttfuckers, although it remains a popular spot for kiddie birthday parties), and the most popular show on TV is called Ow! My Balls! You know that snaggle-toothed trog on your block who spends every Saturday camped out in his driveway with his knuckle-dragging buddies, blasting hip-hop at unholy volumes from noon until the cops finally show up at 11 p.m.? Idiocracy’s future America has become nothing but that guy, from sea to oily, polluted sea, and it’s a hilarious, terrifying place, like one of R. Crumb’s cartoons come to grimy life.
Judge’s previous creations, which include Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill and Office Space, have made him many millions of dollars and spawned enough catch phrases to fill a couple of chapters in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations; as you read these very words, thousands of dorks all over America are annoying their co-workers by muttering about Swingline staplers. But even most of Judge’s most devoted fans were unaware he had a new film in theaters because Fox dumped this thing like a radioactive turd, releasing it to but a handful of cities, with no TV or radio ads, no posters, no media press kits . . . basically, the only way you’d have known this movie existed is if you happened to run into Judge somewhere and asked him what he’s been up to lately.
Idiocracy is arguably as good as anything else Judge has done, it stars a bona fide A-lister, and it looks like it cost a bundle; after all, all those grimy, crumbling city streets and little doodlebug cars couldn’t have come cheap. So what gives? Why is Fox treating Judge and his film so shabbily?
With King of the Hill, Judge comes across as that rarest of creatures on the modern American scene: an honest-to-gosh compassionate conservative. Very occasionally the show degenerates into wearisome Republican propaganda, but Hank Hill is generally a quiet and reasonable soul who espouses the kind of folksy values that are fairly hard to fault—hard work is good for you, and all that. Idiocracy is a more vicious beast, and if you didn’t know better, you could easily take it as the work of some angry commie kid. The film relentlessly and savagely attacks corporate America: here, ill-tempered Carl’s Jr. vending machines snarl, “Fuck you, I’m eating!”, Costco stores are the size of Arizona, and Fox News is hosted by a shirtless himbo and a hot chick in a bustier who cheerfully and sexily lie to an endlessly gullible public. Idiocracy all but grabs you by the lapels and screams, “Stop buying all this McCrap and read a fucking book already!” No wonder Fox didn’t get behind this thing, not while the Rock has a new mind-rotter flooding the multiplexes.
There are a few moments in Idiocracy when some of Judge’s red state prejudices surface (even the otherwise kind-hearted Joe refers harshly to “fags,” for instance), but for most of its running time, the film is so wonderfully shocking and subversive, saying so many blackly comic truths about life in these United States, that you can hardly believe Judge is getting away with it. But then you realize that, thanks to Fox, the film only reached the tiniest fraction of its potential audience; it could well be that the only people who saw it last week were me, the two sixtysomethings and the Griffith fan. So just what is Judge getting away with, again?
Of course, Office Space was poorly promoted and tanked on its initial release, and it has since become one of those Spinal Tap-esque “cult” hits, where everybody in America seems to be a member of the cult. (Seriously, just mention the Swingline stapler at your office tomorrow morning, and half the people there will start mumbling about burning down the building.) Assuming Fox bothers to put this movie out on DVD, it seems inevitable that an audience will find it and love it. Idiocracy paints a grim picture of our future, but I’m willing to bet that this smart, angry little comedy’s own future will be a happy one.