Back in 2006, Mike Judge, the man who gave us the immortal Beavis and Butthead as well as “King of the Hill” and a more recent and less distinguished TV show whose name I have momentarily forgotten, directed a total flopperoo of a movie called Idiocracy that made less than half a million dollars at the box office after a limited release on 130 screens. The idea behind this futuristic fantasy was that contemporary American culture had already set us on course to be, in about 500 years’ time, a race of morons. Mr. Judge’s narrator in that film told us that,
as the 21st century began, human evolution was at a turning point. Natural selection, the process by which the strongest, the smartest, the fastest, reproduced in greater numbers than the rest, a process which had once favored the noblest traits of man, now began to favor different traits. Most science fiction of the day predicted a future that was more civilized and more intelligent. But as time went on, things seemed to be heading in the opposite direction. A dumbing down. How did this happen? Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence. With no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most, and left the intelligent to become an endangered species.
It was an often if not uniformly amusing film in which an average couple from our own time (Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph) were cryogenically frozen and woke up in a world where the ruling classes were, like everyone else, so stupid that the time-travelers were considered geniuses by comparison.
Admirers of Mr. Judge’s cult classic, Office Space, will recognize the scenario of the attractive couple who inhabit an otherwise deserted island of sense in a vast sea of nonsense, stupidity and vicious self-seeking. Though not so much fun as Office Space, Idiocracy deserved to do better than it did, and Manohla Dargis theorized about the reason for its failure in reviewing Mr. Judge’s new film, Extract, for the New York Times. She thought that the earlier one had flopped because 20th Century Fox, which released it, was miffed about alleged satirical swipes at its corporate stable-mate, the Fox television network, and some of its advertisers. Not that she liked that movie much better than she liked this one.
I would suggest another possibility. Two of the features of the cognitive élite who dominate our culture now are an uncritical belief in “progress” (which is why they call themselves “progressives”) and a lack of imagination. Indeed, the one follows from the other. To today’s braniacs, a future world in which they are not in charge, having put right all our world’s wrongs, is almost inconceivable. That’s why, even though Idiocracy all but invited them to identify themselves with Mr. Wilson and Miss Rudolph and the alleged morons of the future with those of the present who were supposed to have elected George W. Bush, they shunned it. Call it a failure of self-knowledge on the part of the progressives who, apart from teenagers, are almost the only movie-goers left in America today.
One of the most amusing features of Mr. Judge’s last utopian fancy was the idea that the most popular program on television in 2505 would be “Ow! My Balls!” — a “reality” show consisting of nothing but slacker dudes howling in pain as they suffer from the sorts of accidents, presumably staged for the cameras, that the title suggests. But the new film, which on its opening weekend made 12 times as much money as Idiocracy did during the whole of its brief run (though on 12 times as many screens), may owe at least some of its success by a similar resort to bad taste. For not only is it once again about a normally intelligent couple who are surrounded by fools and knaves, it also revolves around an incident of testicular trauma. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I guess.
When the half-witted “Step” (Clifton Collins Jr.), an employee of a plant that manufactures flavor extract, “suffers mid-body injury” (in the words of the local newspaper) as a result of the incompetence of his co-workers — although this is scarcely greater than his own — he decides to sue his employer with the help of a shyster lawyer, played by Gene Simmons of Kiss, and sexy Cindy (Mila Kunis), a hustler and thief who gets a job at the plant. “Hot girls need jobs too,” the boss, Joel (Jason Bateman), explains.
“Do they?” says his assistant doubtfully.
Cindy pretends to be Step’s girlfriend while simultaneously trying to seduce the boss. One or the other seems likely to be her victim — whichever is stupider. One difference between this movie and Office Space is that the boss is now the hero, the employees the idiots, instead of the other way around. It’s not a formula calculated to appeal to Miss Dargis or other progressives, I fancy, but it makes for a refreshing change.
What this movie and Office Space have in common, however, is that Mr. Judge has once again allowed himself to be sidetracked by a plot that has little or nothing to do with the comic scenario he has constructed out of the extract plant and its more or less idiotic employees. In the earlier case it was a heist caper; in this it is Joel’s improbable (to say the least) hiring of a moronic gigolo (Dustin Milligan) to seduce his wife (Kristen Wiig), who has been “not in the mood” for some months past, so that he can nail Cindy without guilt. The stupidity and bad taste of this plot, cooked up under the influence of drugs with the help of another mental defective, a bartender played by Ben Affleck, almost makes us long for an episode of “Ow! My balls!”
What, in any case, Joel’s marital difficulties have to do with anything else in the movie — including yet another idiot (David Koechner), a neighbor who is a bore and incapable of taking a hint — let alone with Step and Cindy’s plot which, with the connivance of the law and the culture of stupidity, threatens to cost him his livelihood, it is far from clear. It’s nice to know that Mr. Judge is unafraid to expose stupidity wherever he finds it, even when it is not among capitalists, managers, politicians, his own descendants or the ruling classes, but his attention span appears to be hardly more capacious than Step’s. As in all his movies, however, and most of his TV shows, there are a number of good jokes.