Mike Judge is a pretty smart guy. While it was reported that he initially made a financially disadvantageous deal with MTV on his now legendary “Beavis and Butthead” cartoon characters, the headline “Nice Creative Person Screwed by Media Giant” wasn’t really news. And Judge has had great success with his animated TV series King of the Hill, which can often be the subtlest, most genteel show on television.
Judge ventured into live-action features with the timely workplace comedy Office Space, which has legions of dedicated fans and continues to thrive on DVD. A second feature by Judge was recently… well, that’s what we don’t quite understand.
Judge’s Idiocracy impressively works as both a laugh-out-loud comedy and a chilling vision of the future. Like most films about the world of tomorrow, it basically builds on a condemning picture of the present. It scorches advertising and junk food and lowbrow entertainment like monster truck rallies, and suggests that 500 years in the future, America will literally be buried in garbage and too stupid to care.
If you’re feeling threatened by any of this, don’t be. At the time of this writing, Idiocracy is only playing in two theaters in the greater Los Angeles area, at the same time that Employee of the Month and Jackass 2 are in roughly 223 theaters, combined.
So, what happened? Chris Garcia, writing for the Austin American-Statesman (the film was shot in Austin and Judge lives there), has reported that FOX studios held up the film for two years, although other accounts indicate there was post-production dickering over the film’s considerable digital rendering. Finally the film was released on September 1 in seven cities… with no plans to open it more widely. Have you seen the ads for Idiocracy? No, you haven’t. There aren’t any.
True, most marketing departments might have trouble getting a handle on a film that could easily be titled “America is Dumb and Getting Dumber.” But what are we to conclude when documentaries making harsh assessments of Iraq and the Bush Administration enjoy thriving distribution, but a film that opens with a montage showing America breeding itself into near mental retardation has a nearly invisible “release”?
Having seen the movie at the AMC Avco Center 4 on Wilshire (where it was still playing during the first week of October), I can tell you that present and future dumbness isn’t the only element that might be bothering the film’s handlers. The movie relentlessly hammers advertising, suggesting that in the future everyone will happily wear disposable clothing patterned with product logos. They’ll sit on chairs that are also toilets and watch a TV show consisting of nothing but a man getting whacked in the groin. They’ll eat a food product (with their bare hands) that appears to be butter in a huge paper tub. And most citizens will barely be able to form a sentence when they speak.
You’ll have to trust me that all of this is presented with a very free comic hand that causes Idiocracy to be funny and mordant at the same time. Like Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, Idiocracy is actually an art film posing as a goofy comedy.
In much the same way teen obesity was an uneasy topic at dinner just a few years ago, “dumbing down” is one of those things we’re uncomfortable talking about. That’s why we communicate about it with code words like “guilty pleasure” when adult drama is replaced with soap operas and movies become aggressively simplistic. We know we have a problem, and yet we appear to be unable to tolerate even a frothy comedy that addresses it. I can’t prove that anyone is actually trying to keep a dialogue from emerging, but I can tell you that when I saw Idiocracy there were only seven other people in the theater.