Watching ‘Idiocracy’ for the First Time

Normally for this column I watch a comedy many people have told me to see, but this week I did something a little different — I watched a comedy just one person has told me to see on a number of occasions. He’s got a good sense of humor, so I knew it wouldn’t be a total waste of time. Plus, I figured if I liked it, this column would help him evangelize it vicariously through me, and if I didn’t like it, I could publicly shame his questionable taste in movies.

Fortunately for my friend, Idiocracy is a pretty good movie.

For those of you who haven’t seen it (it feels weird to type that), Idiocracy is a 2006 Mike Judge film, starring Luke Wilson, Dax Shepard and Maya Rudolph, about an average Joe who is cryogenically frozen for 500 years. When he wakes up, he realizes that because of the deevolution of human society, he and the prostitute who was also frozen are the two smartest people in the world. By a long shot. It’s a world where the most popular show on television is Ow! My Balls!, water has been replaced by an electrolyte-filled sports beverage for drinking fountains and watering crops, and the President punctuates speeches with flipping everyone off and shooting a machine gun into the air. It’s a hilarious, if slightly obvious, concept, and the execution is funny, if a little simple.

Mike Judge is a guy with a unique talent for satirizing a topic to the point of complete insanity, then dropping a completely normal guy in the middle of it to be terrified and disgusted. It’s a great juxtaposition, and Idiocracy is maybe Judge’s most unadorned version of that, for better or worse. While the idea of humanity getting stupider isn’t exactly cutting-edge satire, it’s in the details: there are a handful of bits that are pretty good jabs — “Rehabilitation” being a nationally-televised bloodsport, for example, or the fact that a bunch of products use “Fuck You” for a slogan. There are also a ton of non-satire gags that are just as sweet — “Haulin’ Ass, Gettin’ Paid” is printed on money, and everyone wears loose-fitting polyester.

Speaking of polyester, the production design in Idiocracy is killer. It services the film like very few movies I’ve seen recently. There is a relentless mess of advertising on every surface, everybody’s clothing looks like a cross between branded athletic attire and O.R. scrubs (O.R. they, Luke Wilson?), and every building and set piece is falling apart from centuries of moronic neglect. Everything is shoddy, dirty and decidedly not futuristic, which is the whole idea. I laughed out loud when I saw the microphones on the presidential podium — one yellow, one red. They look like they’re made from toilet paper tubes.

Luke Wilson is great, too. This is sort of an ideal role for him, an earnest, painfully normal guy who saves the world with his normalcy and earnestness. He’s a good straight man in a world that desperately needs one. The rest of the cast isn’t quite so lucky. Maya Rudolph does what she can, but her part is pretty thin, and most of her screen time is spent trying to avoid telling Luke Wilson the truth about her past as a hooker, with whom there’s no chemistry whatsoever. Dax Shepard doesn’t have much to do either, and he spends a lot of the time just saying blandly dumb lines that don’t help the plot and aren’t as funny as they could be.

No, most of the comedy in Idiocracy — and, to its credit, there’s a lot of it — is found in the plentiful bite-sized visual gags, fish-out-of-water jokes and sketch-y scenes that put the bewildered Luke Wilson in front of an endless supply of blithering idiots. Fortunately, there are so many unique and subtle flavors of imbecile in our time to parody, the scenes stay pretty fresh, so whether he’s confronted with a prison idiot, a policeman rube, or a government bideep, he always has something new and stupid to which he can react.

But when the movie isn’t making pitch-perfect dumb jokes (“St. God’s Memorial Hospital” is an unbeatable 3 gags at once — the third because the building is too narrow for the sign, so the rest of the letters are printed down the side of the building), it gets a little bogged down by a plot that isn’t given quite enough weight to hit, but too much to ignore, and a handful of wasted opportunities. A movie like this could carry a good plot, or a real romantic arc, but it doesn’t here, and although the comedy well is deep enough to keep things moving, it’s only barely enough.

What is good here is great, though, and definitely outweighs what doesn’t work, if only because there are few environments in the comedy world that allow for such unadulterated buffonery. Like Dumb and Dumber, you don’t go because it holds together as a piece of cinema, but because there’s something sublime about a solid joke involving a mind-bendingly imbecilic character. I don’t think it’s applicable to judge a movie from 2006 on whether or not it “still holds up” — after only five years many of the original support beams are still in place. But it’s a really funny film, and I’m glad to be able to check it off my list, even if it was put on the list by just one guy. You win this round, pal.

Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.

Watching ‘Idiocracy’ for the First Time