Smarting over film’s message


SO WHICH will be harder to spot this season -- Mark Foley campaign signs or movie ads for “Idiocracy”?

If Foley had been as stealthy about messaging teenage pages as 20th Century Fox has been in releasing this dystopian social satire, Foley might still be the honorable member from Florida’s 16th Congressional District.

“Idiocracy” couldn’t be more undercover if it were wearing a burka: a film released without an ad campaign, without movie trailers, without media screenings.


You can see “Idiocracy” if you live in Atlanta, but not in New York. In Houston, but not in San Francisco. I saw it in Pasadena on a double feature with “The Celestine Prophecy,” a cinematic mismating on the order of Lenny Bruce hooking up with Glinda the Good Witch.

I got wind of “Idiocracy” only because I know people who know the guy who made it -- Mike Judge, who did “Office Space” and “King of the Hill.” This film stars Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph, with a cameo by Thomas Haden Church, the Oscar-nominated roue in “Sideways.” And yet Paris Hilton got more press for “House of Wax.”

“Idiocracy” begins as your standard suspended-animation plot, with its stars thawing out in 2505, in an America that will bring hosannas from the creationist crowd because, clearly, Darwin has struck out. The smart people have dithered themselves out of the gene pool. America 2505 is populated not by the fittest but by the fattest and the dumbest -- the overbreeding, oversexed spawn of the cast of “Jackass.” Their Barcaloungers are fitted out with toilets so they don’t have to miss a moment of the top-rated show, “Ow, My Balls!” The nation’s hit movie is “Ass”: 90 wordless minutes of bare butt, winner of Oscars for best picture and best screenplay.

It’s worse than Big Brother -- it’s Big Bro.

Time traveler Joe Bowers was “remarkably average” five centuries ago, but here he’s the smartest man around. People who converse in hip-hop catchphrases and advertising jingles mock Joe’s subject-verb agreement as “faggy.” But the nation plunges into crisis -- no more burrito toppings -- because a canny uber-CEO bought the FDA and replaced water with sports drinks, even for crops. The president, a pro wrestler who’s put mud-flap girls on the White House gates, puts Joe in charge of saving them all. “Do something smart,” the Cabinet orders him, by the light of a pool-hall beer lamp.

Why has Fox deep-sixed this film? A Fox spokesman tells me that “Idiocracy” was “a limited release, that’s it, nothing to really talk about.”

But the cine-blog world is roiling with questions. Did Judge’s film, by sheer happenstance, mirror Rupert Murdoch’s blueprint for a Fox-fed nation of fat, dumb and happy? Is the problem a threatened lawsuit over the way “Idiocracy” treats corporate America? Starbucks in 2505 serves speedy sex acts with the coffee, and Carl’s Jr. and H&R; Block get the same rough handling. But that’s why studios have lawyers, and that’s why we have the 1st Amendment.


Perhaps it’s been cast out of distribution Eden for the same reason that Newsweek made “Losing Afghanistan” its cover story last week in every country except the United States. We got a cover story about a celebrity photographer.

It could be the same reason the $400-billion “war on terror” has been slyly financed by “emergency” legislation, put on the nation’s credit card, where the bill never seems to comes due. Or the same reason the administration bans pictures of coffins coming back from Iraq.

And that would be because Americans are being mollycoddled and infantilized. If we’re not getting the truth -- even delivered via satire -- it might be because leaders think we can’t take it, or they may be afraid of what we might do if we did get it. President Bush dismissed leaked intelligence reports critical of the Iraq war because they could “create confusion in the minds of the American people.” Goodness no; don’t confuse us with information.

Luke Wilson’s Joe is cinema’s classic “average guy” who spills the beans to the other folks -- Gary Cooper’s John Doe, Jimmy Stewart’s Sen. Smith. Such men are dangerous. And “Idiocracy,” in its snarky way, is a dangerous movie.

Joe tells a fellow time-traveler to return to the past to “tell people to read books, stay in school.... I think the world got like this because people like me never did anything with their lives.... There was a time in this country when smart people were considered cool.” In a culture devoted to “getting and spending,” that’s radical talk. calls “Idiocracy” “the most stirring defense of traditional values since Edmund Burke’s ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France.’ ” I wouldn’t go that far, but Judge may be a man out of his own time too. You have to wonder whether he’s making satire -- or documentaries.