Film

The Genius of ‘Idiocracy’ Is That It Makes You Dumber, Too

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Mike Judge’s Idiocracy might technically be coming back to theaters for one night only, but for many of us, it’s been running on an endless loop for years. In a world where Donald Trump is a presidential candidate and some cafés are now offering blowjobs with your morning coffee, it’s hard not to be reminded of Judge’s satire about a future where humans have devolved into foulmouthed, near-catatonic stupidity. And even back during its troubled release, there was a sense that Judge’s comedy would carry the weight of prophecy. But does a photo of a pregnant woman “prophesy” what her child will be like? Idiocracy wasn’t so much predicting a dumbed-down, vulgarian future as capturing one already in mid-transformation.

That Judge dared speak a truth everyone already knew was just one of the speculated reasons for Fox’s bizarre handling of Idiocracy’s 2006 release. After nickel-and-diming the director in post-production and then sitting on the film for nearly two years (after it reportedly audience-tested poorly), the studio gave it the most reluctant of theatrical runs, opening in a few cities (New York not among them) with no promotion whatsoever — no critics’ screenings, no ads, nothing. Studios dump movies all the time, but many of us sensed something more sinister. Even the trailer was impossible to see — Judge himself wasn’t permitted to show it to a writer interviewing him for a profile in Esquire. Reports came of posters going up in theaters, then being taken down. When you called Moviefone for showtimes in the theaters where it was showing, the film was listed not as Idiocracy but as Untitled Mike Judge Project. Even the most abortive studio release usually gets some basic promotion: a poster here, a correctly spelled title there. Not Idiocracy.

Of course, the studio’s actions may have helped make Idiocracy the cult item that it is now. It opened in theaters with the faint whiff of samizdat — the “Movie Hollywood Doesn’t Want You to See,” as a Slate review by Reihan Salam dubbed it. Back then, running nerve.com’s film blog, the Screengrab, I kept a running tally of the promotional indignities visited upon Judge and his film maudit, and received anonymous letters written by people who had worked on it.

Nobody could pinpoint what the problem was. Were corporate higher-ups worried about the companies they do business with getting offended, since the film name-checks real entities like Carl’s Jr, Fuddruckers, and Starbucks? Was Fox turned off by the bruising satire — of a decrepit, trash-strewn future completely overrun by corporations, including a Fox News channel consisting entirely of half-naked anchors reading the news with crude expletives and sound effects? Maybe they wanted to punish Judge after butting heads with him during the making of the movie — even though Judge is by, all accounts, a mild-mannered guy unlikely to wind up in any bridge-burning confrontations. Or maybe someone at Fox just really, really hated the damned thing, and didn’t want to waste another single dime selling it.

You can understand how the studio might have thought the movie a dud. In some ways, the film’s satire undercuts itself. Because what Idiocracy gets right is something more fascinating than just its many (many) digs at corporatized incompetence. The jokes about Fuddruckers becoming “Buttfuckers,” or crops sprayed with energy drink, or hit shows called Ow! My Balls are certainly funny, but it’s the film’s texture of stupidity that is its most unsettling element. Not unlike the way Judge’s Office Space seemed to replicate the lifeless, soul-corroding pace of cubicle life, Idiocracy seems to have absorbed the dimness of its subjects. It’s not just about dumb people; it feels dumb. It’s a drone of inarticulate repetition.

Consider: When the time-traveling Pvt. Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) first wakes up in a pile of garbage inside the apartment of Frito (Dax Shepherd), Frito responds to a question about a military base with an awkward, “I’ll base your ass on my fist…face…ass… Shut up!” The scene is strangely inert — ugly, static, off-putting — and not just because Frito is too busy sitting on his couch-toilet and watching Ow! My Balls on TV while dipping his finger into a giant tub of food product. Later, upon discovering that our hero doesn’t have the state-mandated ID tattooed on his arm, a young, bandanna-sporting doctor (Justin Long) hazily keeps asking Joe, “Tattoo? Where’s your tattoo?”; the scene weirdly drags on, as it takes an unnatural amount of time for the doctor to understand what’s going on.

Idiocracy is filled with such moments. As Joe wanders the garbage-strewn streets, extras mill about, looking like they haven’t been given anything to do. The whole film has a drab, somnambulant rhythm. Intentional or not, this is part of its genius. You can feel it making you stupider as you watch it — sucking the energy and the wit out of you, something like what Judge’s MTV hit Beavis and Butthead did back in its day. You watched them watching music videos, and you gradually became them watching music videos.

And what of the film’s legacy? As much as some of us might want to imagine Idiocracy as an act of progressive agitprop, it’s not. Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist who runs InfoWars, is a big fan, and has had Judge on his show to talk about the movie. Calmer conservatives have identified in the director’s vision a Burkean critique of the myth of so-called social progress. To his credit, Judge refuses to validate any specific point of view or philosophy.

In truth, we see what we choose to in this movie: The left can seize on its criticisms of runaway capitalism, and the right its vision of a hedonistic society where every sin is on full, proud display. And what to make of the funny, troubling prologue, in which an intelligent, yuppie-ish couple put off having kids until it’s too late, while a gaggle of trailer park yokels procreate like Mountain Dew–infused rabbits, thereby sealing the country’s genetic fate? Is Judge implying that the uneducated should have fewer kids (or none at all), while degree-holding, well-to-do couples should have more? And isn’t that, essentially, a form of eugenics?

I don’t know. I laughed. I hated myself. Then I laughed some more. And let’s be fair: Mike Judge, like many good satirists, isn’t in the business of offering solutions. But when the humor is this savage, it does make you wonder what he’s implying. Ten years later, Idiocracy’s real achievement isn’t how much of it has come true, but how much it continues to disturb.

Idiocracy plays tonight at the IFC Center.