By refusing to distance itself from its targets, Mike Judge’s brand of satire risks being mistaken for what it’s satirizing. The Beavis and Butthead cartoons were erroneously dismissed as a mindless extension (rather than a complicit critique) of misdirected suburban youth, a fate that can similarly befall Idiocracy, Judge’s sophomore live-action comedy—or could have, that is, if the picture had ever been actually released. Brusquely dumped by its studio without even the courtesy of a trailer, this orphaned project has, as a result, acquired such an aura of lacerating subversion—the movie 20th Century Fox was too chickenshit to distribute!—that it is more than slightly disappointing to find, upon actual viewing, not much beyond a solid episode of Futurama. Give it props for nerve, however: A world where Starbucks has become synonymous with handjobs is surely beyond the reach of Fox’s other unceremoniously-axed vision of the future.
Joe Bowers (Luke Wilson) is an ordinary Army schmoe picked as guinea pig in a government experiment. Along with mouthy streetwalker Rita (Maya Rudolph), he’s supposed to be cryogenically frozen for one year to test a hibernation program, but it isn’t until 2505 that the two are thawed out and released into a radically mutated world: The sheer proliferation of stupid people has gradually reversed the Darwinian process in the 500 years since, and the planet has become overrun with slack-jawed numbskulls barely able to string together the slangy insults the language has degenerated into. The President (Terry Alan Crews) is an ex-wrestler and former porn star, water has been replaced everywhere by sports drinks, and people are only too happy to accept, consume, and vegetate. Judge’s dystopia is a pop wasteland triggered by rampant ignorance (the very act of thinking is dubbed “faggy”) and then held down by corporate greed, a daring concept visualized in the picture’s most evocative shot, of Costco merchandise piled high toward the skies to suggest gargantuan towers ready to topple over.
As evident in the cubicle zombies of Office Space, Judge recognizes quotidian frustration and the small ways through which people revolt against it; working on a larger, broader scale in Idiocracy, however, his control quickly dissolves into a freefall of ideas and jokes, some hitting the bullseye and others landing on the floor with a thud. Judge is indifferent to anything resembling space or rhythm, yet the low-tech chintz of his approach ultimately enhances the caustic themes by making the futuristic atmosphere absurdly transparent; as with Godard’s Alphaville, we are already living in the future, for how wide a gap really separates Date Movie and Failure to Launch from Ass, the single, unchanging shot of a gassy, naked butt topping box-office charts in 2025? (The hero recalls a past when moviegoers “cared about whose ass it was, and why it was farting.”) Idiocracy is too scattershot and compromised to push the conceptual bleakness beyond the realm of lowbrow comedy, though Judge’s cultural ire remains bracing throughout: For all the characters’ slapsticky imbecility, Judge makes it clear that it’s their docile acceptance (read: political inactivity) that makes them true dumbasses.