Having garnered good word of mouth by default in the midst of an undernourished Sundance lineup, The Tao of Steve arrives just a few months after the festival but long past its expiration date. The movie belongs to a certain mushroom cluster of Amerindies from the mid ’90s, when Park City started welcoming any young white guy with a visually anemic, obstinately single-minded relationship comedy wherein true love enables the hero to make a sentimental fetish out of toppling his cynicism and confirming his morbid sense of entitlement, while not disrupting his ability to fire off endless pop-culture-laden riffs on romance and, you know, chicks.
As it turns out, The Tao of Steve is directed by a chick (first-timer Jenniphr Goodman), but the alpha personality here is clearly the main screenwriter, young white guy Duncan North, who—true to his school—started with the man in the mirror to come up with his protagonist and alter ego, portly boyslut Dex. (The film’s epigraph reads: “Based on a story by Duncan North/Based on an idea by Duncan North/Based on Duncan North.”) A preschool teacher in Santa Fe, Dex is a proudly undermotivated sort but a freak with the ladies, no remarkable feat in itself except that, as played with flaccid nonchalance by Donal Logue, he seems less magnetic voluptuary than self-consciously loutish lech, who overcompensates for his perceived shortcomings through stultifying epigramming (“Doing stuff is overrated”) and lengthy, Will Hunting-esque discourses on the intersections of dating strategy with Buddhism, Heidegger, and Steve McQueen (his effortless biker cool provides a title for Dex’s courtship philosophy, and for the movie). Aggressively slacker, physically a cross between Philip Seymour Hoffman’s phone stalker in Happiness and George from Big Brother but boasting a Beatty-worthy catalog of conquests, the Zen-tropic Dex is intended as a living koan, though his exploits read better as studies in cognitive dissonance.
The film finds its raison d’être in Dex’s need to confront his fears of monogamy via his former college classmate and possible true love Syd (coscreenwriter Greer Goodman, Jenniphr’s sister), a brittle, maddeningly fickle set designer still nursing a grudge about their long-ago one-night stand. A cloud of dreary inevitability hovers over the pair as they pretend not to flirt for The Tao of Steve‘s 90-minute duration, and the Goodman behind the camera does little to brighten the weather: Santa Fe might as well be Jersey, and the glaring absence of a directorial schema is broken only by her proclivity for random circular pans. The threesome’s script toys for a moment here and there with poor-man’s Notorious notions about the performance of self, but The Tao of Steve poses only one pertinent question: Can any American filmmaker other than the Farrellys make a rom-com in which the principals engage in activities apart from the tiresomely tireless dissection of rom?
Another question: Is Better Living the most pointlessly vile movie of the year? It’s hard to imagine what foul wind could topple this suburban charnel house of poisonous dichotomies. At once man-hating and misogynist, obstreperously offensive and pitifully idiotic, Max Mayer’s parable of evil patriarchs (namely Roy Scheider, looking heavily sedated) and the cattle-brained women who love them (among others, Olympia Dukakis, raiding the same pharmaceutical cabinet) is a no-budget vomit launch that can raise your ire like usually only a fascistic Hollywood blockbuster can.