RIORI Vol 3, Installment 66: Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” (2006)

The Players…

Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Dax Shepard, Terry Crews (not the writer), Sara Rue and myriad other morons.

The Story…

Two average, yet very brave Americans—an average Army soldier and your average hooker—are sent as accidental “time travelers” from 2005 into the year 2505 after a series of freakish events. When they arrive to their new timeline, they find an America so devolved, so dumbed-down that they’re now the smartest people around. Dang.

So “smart” that no one will hear them out. Kinda like yer typical Fox News audience.

Want some Cheetos? You need Cheetos. I love you.

The Rant…

This might be commentary on our popular culture and our place within it. No, I’m not talking about this week’s post. Not really.

Many moons ago I read this essay entitled Anti-Intelleuctualism In AmericaLife  by one Richard Hofstadter. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. The long and the short of the book was a careful, thoughtful examination of how the then-present groupthink of America was destroying critical thinking, upending it with vilification of entertainment and convenience. It was written in then-recent post-war years, and the dawn of new tech promised time once taken up by harvesting crops, Blue Mondays and where the hell did my car keys go to introspection and finally enough time to squat down with all those Danielle Steele novels you’ve been promising yourself.

I know Steele was not published at the time. Unsure if she was even out of junior high. I do not care. Roll with me here.

The opposite proved true, and still does today. The free time allowed by new tech devolved into free time musing. Now what? I’m bored. All this time. Those Steele books all have the same plot. I still have 13 loads of whites to do and the damned machine keeps choking on all that soap and stains. Let’s check out the newscast.

I later read a book called The Media Monopoly by one Ben Bagdikian. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Written decades later after Hofstadter’s cautionary tale. The book talked about the subjective social context in how text has had the power to manipulate American minds to automatically think along partisan lines. In the process negating the need for deduction, critical thinking and simply questioning “Why am I reading this and what am I getting out of it?” Solid bedrock of individual thought against an omnipotent word causing what modern psychotherapists call “cognitive dissonance.”

The upgrades proved true, and still do today. We ingest terabytes of data every minute from nameless, faceless entities telling us how to form opinions, and any informed ideas are scurried to the back of the queue for lack of T & A.

Now. Ten years ago (at this time of posting) we have Facebook and Twitter. Thanks to the World Wide Web, all the info accrued over millennia at your touchscreens seldom have anything to do with understanding how the human genome was dissected. Nopes.

We gots porn, dancing kitties and porn. And kittie porn. And kiddie porn. Gah.

The Hofstadter book was published in 1963, post-Kennedy, pre-Newscorp. The Bagadikian screed in 1983, post-Newscorp, pre-Internet.

You remember what you had for breakfast today? Twitter and Cap’n Crunch, I betcha. That and that lingering hangover. Trust you found the cure for that on Ashton Kutcher’s feed.


If any of you Gen X’ers/ironic Millenials out there remember this, I might be surprised but not very shocked. There was this user-geek post-punk/art prank rock unit out of Ohio calling themselves Devo. The former might recall the subversive “Whip It” music video on MTV. The latter might—just might—be wearing their concert tee right now. Devo took their moniker as shorthand for the theory of “devolution.”  A Darwinian concept that certain species can buck the trend and revert back to a more primitive, impulsive, survivalist, “simpler” path of life. In easier terms, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Behold,  Spike TV. Formerly TNN, The Nashville Network. Noodle that.

But really. I’ll try to get serious now. Try. As if I weren’t reaching for something a few paragraphs ago. You still clutching that Android, mate?

All didactic bitterness aside, if you look around over the past fifty years, our culture has indeed gotten softer and softer, more and more bored and what social interests are shared in social media usually revolve around celebrities, political pundits smearing other political pundits (think AlterNet vs Fox News) and those omnipresent kitties. To put that in further perspective, in America’s capitalist system, who are the best paid workers? That answer: entertainers. Actors. Athletes. To a certain degree politicians (especially with this administration). It’s never educators. Not first responders. Not science-minded folks (save Neil Tyson, but he and Bill Nye got their feet wet awhile ago thanks to TV) who try to better expand peoples’ world view.

Nope. We’ve learned to like and keep it fast, simple and shiny. When I heard the story (allegedly true) that some kid held up another kid at gunpoint for his then new PS3 brandishing a weapon worth three new PlayStations, my face fell.

There are two kinds of stories. Those that are true, and those that should be. Truth’s boring and/or hostile. Better to change the channel. That’s easier. Don’t think too much about the bad sh*t that might inconvenience you life with your slog of a job, endless Netflix feed and the clutch of PS4’s WiFi commune in your ‘rents garage. You you 43 old virgin, you. Thank God for Internet porn to salve that.

The smarter our distractions get, the dumber we get. No need to really bear much scrutiny to where our tax dollars really go so long as we let someone else “smarter” than us handle things. Devo’s choice of moniker stemmed from the term “devolution” again, based on the band’s perception of evidence of dysfunction paired with herd mentality in American society. They were sharp enough to know Rome didn’t fall in a day. It took a lot of bread and circus over decades. They might, just might have been onto something. That was their past viewpoint. Devo eventually reunited years later, reheating their message thru music to a cult following and an indifferent public, glued to their smartphones, checking out Cnet’s take on the Nintendo Switch.

Oh well, maybe the new present isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Or is it?

To the future then…!

According to early 21st Century social scientists, American society is in a state of rapid social decline. The more well-heeled elements of society—the brighter and maybe more brilliant folks—are reluctant to form families in sight of the troubles afflicting our media-saturaed culture. However humdrum lower classes are thriving, if only to mentally check out against the endless bureaucracy that insists on cracking down on their cable black boxes. So, naturally, the military steps in. And if you can’t trust the US military, who can’t you trust?

Enter Joe Bauers (Wilson), the most average Joe indeed in the US Army.

He’s a do-nothing clerk in a deliberate going nowhere job in an unseen post in a forgotten government facility. Namely the ideal subject for a top, top, TOP secret project experiment within the bowels of military clandestine experimentation.

Joe is indeed the ideal candidate. According to his aptitude scores, his is a straight line across the boards. The experiment assigns Joe to be a “time traveller.” The guys with the the white coats have developed a human time capsule. Simply put, the subject is placed into hibernation as a control to be awakened later in history to be the yardstick of social evolution based against the future they are revived in. To quote cranky sci-fi author Harlan Ellison, a “temponaut” (not said in the film to avoid immediate legal action, and only co-opted here for lack of a better term) as it were.

Uh, sure. Joe agrees, so long as it commutes his stay in the Army. He lays down in his capsule, but not alone. Such a risky experiment with a risky subject needs an even riskier control. Needing a way out, the boys in khahi recruit (i.e. nab) your average, willing hooker on the run Rita (Rudolph) as a control to the control. Get to sleep kids, the fate of the future might be in your average hands!

Naturally, the experiment goes haywire. Joe and Rita were plugged away for a year. Funding and espionage screwed it all up, and the project was swiftly lost. They don’t awake one year later. They awake 500 years later to an America they barely recognize. At first it looks like America has slipped a bit away from its projected social hierarchy downhill, but after bumbling about, talking like a “fag” and drinking knock-off Gatorade f*cking everywhere, Joe comes to a startling conclusion.

And him even having a startling conclusion is the first smart thing in centuries…

Yeah, so I guess I crawled up mine own arse introducing this pastiche Idiocracy. Citing all dem smart books and commencin’ to look down on the lot of y’all. Not at all. The film’s a satire. You gotta have some direct context to appreciate a film like this. Satire is all about skewering real world issues couched in humor. Bleak, black humor sure, but hopefully funny and enlightening also. What I yakked about above wasn’t fluffy, but within context might pique one’s curiousity—if not codify—the sense of absurdity in the world.

Director Judge did this for five years courtesy of MTV when Beavis And Butt-Head caught fire (wink wink). His went to prove that sometimes satire comes in dumb packages rather than from a sharp Carlin bit. Yeah, those two morons were dumber than a sack of hammers, but they were funny and screamed social commentary about Gen-x’s consumer/pop culture absorbtion better than any article in Spin could illustrate. Heh heh.

Fast forward. This century. As a filmmaker, Judge never seems to get his due in regard to satire. True, his cinematic output is summed up in, what, three movies? And those being Extract, Office Space and of course Idiocracy.

Despite the short CV, Judge’s flicks (for those who have seen them, and are usually under-employed 30-somethings with a cupboard of Ramen, Pop-Tarts and hate) speak to the seminal disdain we all have from time to time to forever for the mundane absurdity that gets wrapped around us pursuing the paycheck and the best parking spot. In short, life is short and its getting ever shorter.

Judge understands this. All we strive for is ultimately futile. We’re all gonna die, and hopefully painless, in our sleep and quiet. Unlike the other passengers in the car. When Judge gets behind the wheel, hyped up on the Mountain Dew and fast asleep, buckle up and go for the ride, short as it will be. Geronimo.

Idiocracy was notorious being lousy on admission. That’s an old-fashioned med school term for a patient admitted for unsure reasons. Abortive, as it were. Hollywood funded a strange bird, not sure what kind of audience would bite. A risk, regardless of the movie’s content. But hey, Beavis and King Of The Hill cachet. Flip a coin. The short view yielded trumps, but the longview brought press. Sure, immediate press almost guarantees fast cash in Tinsel Town, but that doesn’t mean a franchise in the waiting.

Cult status? Ah, low hanging fruit, but often fruitful. Explain away the many, many reboot films of recent based on other slugs. Dredd, Power Rangers and technically Casino Royale. Yeah, two of those three bit the big one. Those prior there were hardly outright cultly things, A key audience was assured, but not enough to cash in on. Not immediately. I mean Rocky Horror tanked at the outset. These days? What film dork doesn’t quietly grin when they plunk the raw bread into the toaster? Right. Sometimes it’s the insidious stuff that makes movies work, prove eventually worthwhile. But it requires gestation, patience for the proper audience to sit down, check it out and check out often. Hence Evil Dead 2, The Warriors and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (“Look! Evil!”). Nary a fresh horse in that herd, but try not to quote them despite never seeing them (“Look! Evil!”).

Um, Idiocracy is sorta in that camp. Cult, to be sure, but not in the camp that Office Space secured. I recall a time back when I worked in a mobile phone call center. Tech support. In the early aughts, when these gizmos were the first wave. I crashed in the commissary for the mandatory lunch break where free cable scarred the random TVs that hung from the ceiling like a techno lynching waiting to happen. Office Space was flickering, and all present were snickering with empathy. One supervisor, a large but short man was there. He was giggling along as well as frequently announcing to us lackeys, “We can’t be watching this. We can’t be watching this!” He was fooling as well as serious. I could smell the collective rolling of eyes, including mine.

He was later canned (as was I now that I mention it. Tech companies are strict when it comes to where staples go), sort of a latent portent of how the machine works beneath the underpinnings. Or some sh*t. In any event, we both lost our posts after an innocuous viewing of Mike Judge’s satiral meta-dramedy whilst brown-bagging it.

There’s a message there. There must be. There better be. I never collected my last check.

Like most satires (minus missing a week’s pay), there is a message there. You just gotta be astute enough and receptive enough to get the lesson. Also like what become cult movies. Both revelations occur by accident. Ask Dr Frank N Furter.

Judge seems doomed to be a cult director. Such a provence is seldom a chosen goal. It just…happens. Corman may have had the right idea, and possibly the prototype (archetype might be more accurate. Thank Ed Wood the former really), and his progeny/students—actual and spiritual—James Cameron, Ridley Scott and even Martin Scorsese took the ball and f*cking ran with it. The former got a foothold with The Terminator, Blade Runner and Mean Streets respectively, but not intentionally. That’s how cult status in film happens. There is no formula, just happenstance.

Judge is a creature of happenstance. His work is his lot in life. Observe and report. Making the mundane not. Only later to reap any reward, often long after such ships have sailed. To this day I still believe Beavis & Butt-Head Do America was some kind of contractual obligation, like the odd live album of a band falling out of their original deal. Judge was sharp enough to kill off those dimwits, lest suburban teen US caught on to the joke. So onto the autobio King Of The Hill and in come the royalty checks to fund stuff like Office Space and Idioracy. Let’s see who laughs last.

I’m wagering Judge didn’t crack much of a smile. Some muted ire was behind Idiocracy. It shows how possible future entertainment plays out in his alt-2505. 2005 was his then happenstance. He took advantage of that here.

Sorry. Being an asshat again. Deal. It might prove useful. Then again foe me, so would less questionable movie dissections and more 12 step programs.

Back to the fore. Idiocracy got slammed on two fronts. First, sh*tty returns. Enoough said there. Killer karma for Hollywood lobbyists (hey, what’s Affleck working on? No, the other one). Second, sh*tty backing. Party line went that Fox didn’t know what to make of this project, so precious little promo went into marketing Idiocracy as the too-close-to-home satire that it was. Traveling tip: don’t lampoon the machine that sponsors your film/bite the hand that feeds an endless maw.

Imagine that. The moneymaker behind Beavis and Hank Hill got the shaft twice over  from Hollyweird. Well after Office Space began to earn something thanks to cable/rentals, the slow cred granted Judge to indulge his id, as it were (again, thanks to the studio). The cash rolled in thanks to random viewing in mobile phone call centers’ cafeterias the world over. That and starring  the guy from early Wes Andersen films. So why not bankroll the middle-aged wunderkind to skewer pop culture again on the silver screen again? Sure, Office Space…tanked. But look at what Netflix reaped!

Something tells me that was the thought process behind he heads at wavering Reynolds Pictures desperate to capitalize on something, even being an indie studio with the budget to prove it. At the time of Idiocracy, Fox was loose with patience with a bankable yuckfest. Judge took advantage. The best advantage, so much so to thumb his nose at his benefactors. In other words, Judge asked, “You want America in? I’ll make them go away.”

Ahem. The movie. The autopsy.

Idiocracy is a funny movie. Not funny ha-ha, and not funny peculiar either. Funny because the film seems prescient with very few moorings in reality. I read an interview with Judge about what was the inspiration behind Idiocracy. His take would make Devo proud. In short (and probably misquoting him. Ever notice that very little of the Internet has a fact checking department?), Judge commented on what Darwin theorized regarding humanity just isn’t happening. In sum, folks are getting stupiditer. Since most of us can’t disseminate fact from “fake news” and the irony is lost on The Big Bang Theory, Judge might’ve been onto something.

I will now not mention a drop about the 2016 election from here on out beyond this sentence (I don’t have to).

So yeah, Idiocracy is a curiosity. Almost a canard, and I ain’t talking ducks either. Namely and to the point you either get the film’s joke or just plain don’t. Or won’t. At first watch, Idiocracy is a live action cartoon meeting The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Another look is an over the top satire with irony decidedly not lost. It gets hard very fast to tell if Judge cut this slice to either entertain or warn. Like I said, not outright funny (although in a slow burn sense it is) and not outright weird (if you’re the kind to pause and take a look around you. If you can pocket your smartphone for a nanosecond). Is Idiocracy a morality tale for a culture swiftly losing its morality, or a portent?

You ever hear the saw that one’s sole purpose in life may be to serve as warning to others? Beavis and friends tried to tell you that. Now here is your potential progress. Regress is a more apt term.

But like with those seat belt deficient crash test dummies Vince and Larry warning motorists to click it or else (how’s that for dating me?), satire goes down better with humor. Idiocracy isn’t Swiftian in any solid sense regarding that guy’s self-righteous judgement that we’re all damned fools. Judge knows we’re all damned fools, serves it on a platter here and we eat it up. Thus proving some point.

Kinda circular I know, but regarding the fact that the human thumb is the most advanced part of any anatomy on the planet and seemingly stuck to the home key on an iPhone these days, well…

This blogger found Idiocracy difficult to watch, but not for the fact that it was sh*tty. Far from. Thus uber-satire was funny, tricky, cautious and downright interesting. Probably a view being a far cry from the hoi polloi. The truth is most people—f*ck it, all people—all  people go to the movies to escape and be entertained. Unless you’re a Werner Herzog wonk, seldom does one traipse of to the cineplex to get educated. But to garner interest? Hell, that a key base for every movie ever made, despite their final aim.

Judge’s final aim was to pop the balloon here. Circular again. He wanted to warn, raise interest, fasten a few seat belts, entertain and delineate his homespun Darwinian theory against the pop culture addicted populace that made his career. It is to make your head spin. Maybe outright explode a al Scanners in 2025. Ow. My balls.

Speaking of which, I really found this an uncomfortable watch. Don’t misunderstand me, I found Idiocracy amusing for the wrong reasons. Wrong reasons, I think, as to what Judge was aiming at. Best advice I could offer a potential Idiocracy watcher? Think Devo. Whip it. Be stiff. Channel your inner jocko homo ladies. Accept the possible and quit squirming. It’ll only hurt more.

It was tricky for me because of my personality, mindset and very judgmental wide brush. Like the books I cited in the intro, no casual reader would take up with a later on high school debate team mentality at the ready. Whatever seasonal pro sports stats at hand maybe, but surely not Hofstadter.

Regardless of my prickly worldview, Idiocracy is a tricky day. I knew based on press that this was a comedy, a satire, a cartoon. I wasn’t ready for Judge’s pinpoint potential predictions so blatant against is what going on now in the back boardrooms. I know this screed is becoming perilously close to a posthumous Bill Hicks bit, but if you’re a thinking person you’ll get Judge’s joke/warning. It’s part of the fun. Granted it’s bilious, forlorn fun (if there is such a thing in this demented universe), but once you’re in on Judge’s “joke” Idiocracy becomes an ur-Swiftian comedy, complete with both physical comedy against fart jokes against characters named after snack chips.

Oddly enough, it all made sense. Idiocracy is a social microscope. How’s that? Well, for instance our culture is (0ver) saturated with advertising. From billboards on the highway to suggested feeds on FaceBook some company is always trying to bait you and separate you from your hard-earned wages on both essential and frivolous products alike. From car insurance to Blow-Pops, some company out there is trying to coerce you. It happens these days with such an endless, casual delivery we often fail to notice we notice. Idiocracy illustrates the natural outcome of this constant buffering. In Judge’s 2025, every surface is shellacked with ads, so much so that the dimwit populace fails to take note since, well, it’s the norm. So much so that Sheperd’s dope is named Frito. It’s funny stupid now, but considering all those solicitations on FaceBook it sounds like the logical outcome of a society immersed in taking in the others’ need to grow and thrive. And FaceBook launched in 2004, a mere year before Idiocracy came out and a far cry from a household name/app. I think Judge was accidentally onto something.

What Judge was definitely onto was the casting. C’mon now, at heart Idiocracy is indeed social commentary. No shock there, Frito. And of course the best way to get some message across in your movie to be choosy in whom you want to cast. Judge’s casting guys did a good job here. Luke Wilson’s average Joe is, well, perfect. He and his character are so nondescript he stands out, well before his jaunt into the stupid future. His Joe Bauer is all about “Huh?” and “Leave me alone” and “Now what?” Namely, any of us who are drawn out of our non-routine to be pressed to actually do  anything outside our little, comfortable, microcosm. Joe’s not a slacker really, nor a dope, just a guy who got wrapped up in a wonky circumstance invited by his lame-o job and keeping out of the strong drafts.

I know that was a bad pun. Like Danielle Steele’s literary merit, I do not care.

Luke Wilson is Owen Lite. He’s less goof, more smart. His Joe—after bouncing 500 years into the future, that is—gives his “fish out of water” schtick all its got, because such a role as the most mediocre genius in the FaceBook suggestion future to empty heads requires a pretty sharp guy to recognize, reject then exploit the dumb. Joe is really us the audience. Opportunists, some of the laziest f*ckers to walk a flat earth. Long story short, Wilson is us to a T, and beside being a lost a fish his bewildered honesty is both endearing and (dare I suggest) hopeful. Look, there have been times when we’ve all considered ourselves the smartest person in the room—world. Joe satisfies that indulgence, no matter how self-righteous or misguided by fevered ego. Wilson is so, again dare I suggest, so sweet and awkwardly amusing it’s hard to not relate to the guy in a friendly, not disdainful way, Regardless of his circumstances or so-called smartness, I even suggest his performance is a step above his voice of reason in Wes Anderson’s debut/sacred cow Bottle Rocket.

Commence with beer cans, you dunces. Switch to bottles if you really want to intimidate me.

The flip side to the suddenly rational Joe is Rudolph’s idful, streetwise, practical and decidedly not intellectual Rita. She’s the one who passively screams to the audience the emperor’ss naked, but not saying so outright. Her delivery in 2025 is all about, “What the f*ck?” She doesn’t even accept her new normal…at all. She’s entreched isn her old normal. Hopefully akin to what a goggling audience is reacting to: ha ha what the f*ck right ha ha. Paired with Joe, Rita is the yang Joe’s yin needs to keep this screw-up on track. The voice of bewilderment paired with the voice of reason in a world devoid of both. 2025 is just one big FaceBook suggestion, and the pair are defiantly no, whether they realize their “no.”

The only acting blight on this movie is Dax Shepard. I’ll be short here. His character’s pointless beyond caging dumb laughs and acting as the low water mark example of dumb in a dumb world. Worse he’s boring. Must’ve paid off the casting director their weight in Fritos. That’s all.

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Is that a bottle?

What’s Easter egg fun about Idiocracy I found was it being cameo rich. Got the feeling the extras that landed in the flick were either fans of Jugde’s stuff and/or caught a whiff of the script and, sh*t, I gots to get me somma that! Lampooning the pervasive brainlessness in our so-called advanced society? Balloons are fun to pop. Stephen Root, Thomas Haden Church, Justin Long (maybe not him, really). These guys wanted in on the joke, or so it felt. Their mugging was a cute treat, reminding me of Bob Hope’s ironic walk-on in Spies Like Us, another satire about us versus them (check it out. It co-stars the voice of Yoda. Really). What I got out of the cameos’ blurbs was that it’s fun to be in on the joke. It always is.

We dig now that Idiocracy is satire; a comical cautionary tale (for those who are receptive). But as far as movies go that require dire straits to drive the plot home Idiocracy takes a small slice of cake. I claim this because the raison d’etre for Joe and Rita to wind up in this retarded fairy tale action. The Maguffin of Idiocracy is so subtle and slow-burning that it’s only at the butt end of the third act you finally, finally get the joke. There’s a satisfying punchline.

Something tells me that after all of Judge’s other projects Idiocracy was the easiest to make. I repeat, Judge got the inspiration for Beavis & Watson by observing dopey teens’ behavior in his Texas neighborhood. He burned lean tissue as a desk jockey, observing corporate absurdity to inspire Office Space. Guessing people watching was a pretty simple, easy muse for Idiocracy. That and also watching—observing—how folks slope their heads and shoulders down when stabbing at their iPhone, their apps more informative that some notions that may buffet against their user’s head and notice how their shoulders slump a little more.

The moral attached to Judge’s short bus morality/cautionary satire? Pay attention. The future might seem great, but it starts now. So to quote socially astute (and ultimately underrated for that matter) comic along this tack with this nugget: “If a kid calls his grandma Mommy and his mother Pam, he’s going to jail!”

Only Kevin Hart gets more laughs. His stuff requires less strenuous thought. He’s funny as Rock, but is better at delivering the urine with just enough sugar. Kinda like Judge with his cagey way of delivering his brand of satire. The dumb belies social commentary that if you catch yourself “getting it” you’re probably part of the problem. The social commentary, I feel, in Idiocracy is to be vigilant against ignorance, especially the willful kind. You know, the “I don’t know that and don’t wanna know that.” Let someone else do the thinking. I’m gonna pay attention my Snapchat count instead.

Wait. There was an election?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, just don’t expect big yuk-yuks. Mostly a lot of snickers and cringing. Judge’s work is always funny, but Idiocracy was a tad too close for comfort for this blogger. You know, the guy who reads and is ambivalent about Gatorade. Heard it has electrolytes.

Stray Observiminationz…

  • The soundtrack is clever, if not predictable.
  • “You’re all gonna paint then?”
  • If this movie does not bug you, you are not Alex Jones.
  • His role wasn’t much of a stretch for Sheperd, I’ll wager.
  • “Thought your hair would be bigger.”
  • Rudolph is premier butterface.
  • The Oval Office here looks a bit like my old frat house. Probably still does here in 2016.
  • Is the tattoo thing a bitter nod the the Holocaust? Discuss. Really.
  • Rue lost weight. Where it mattered. I’m a pig.
  • All this from living in Texas.
  • “It is an interesting world, though.”

Next Installment…

Billy Bob Thornton stars as The Man Who Wasn’t There. Wait, who’s Billy Bob Thornton? And what’s a remake? Film noir? And what are you guys doing in my living room? What blog?

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 34: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash’s “The Way Way Back” (2013)


The Players…

Liam James, AnnaSophia Robb, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette and Sam Rockwell, with Rob Corrdry, Amanda Peet, Zoe Levin and Maya Rudolph.

The Story…

A terse summer vacation ensues when 14-year old Duncan is suffered by his ineffectual divorcee mother, her assh*le boyfriend, his petulant teenage daughter, their drunken neighbor, and their cadre of wasteful friends on a trip to the beaches of Long Island. The only thing that could make the trip bearable would be—oh, I dunno—a cute girl next door and a reckless water park employee. Trust me, it works every time.

The Rant…

At their most basal, summer family vacations mostly suck. Sure, you get away to the beach or the lake house for maybe a month, but that also includes having to deal with the members of your extended family that, a) you have seldom seen in years, who know less about you as an individual than you do, and; b) imply a need to act as if such interactions are as normal as breathing.

It gets all cramped. You all start assuming roles, a pecking order. That and most of the cast of characters feel compelled to acting out of character, which further muddies the social waters. You ask yourself why you weren’t just left alone between May and August with the Wii and plenty of Netflix streaming in your own den. Yet there is this prerogative. We’re getting out of the house, to points afar, and we’re gonna have FUN, dammit!

Nothing is less fun than mandatory fun, especially when you’re in your teens.

Here we go again on the way-back machine. Your friendly blogger mines his past to make relevant this installment’s existence…

When I was a kid, about a billion years ago, my grandparents had a monthly rental at a beach community—an incorporated summer village—on New York’s Fire Island. Quit snickering. It’s not all gays and syringes on the shore. Okay, it’s not just that.

The little ville of under 200 was called Saltaire, a little pun openly denied it being dubbed after some seaside town in the UK. Whatever. Fire Island itself is wedged between Coney Island and the Hamptons, and is a protected national seashore. The summer villages were established before Parks & Recreations clamped down in the 1960s. Fire Island is about 25 miles long and a mere quarter mile deep. A barrier island; a big dune bolstered by an aquifer and a lot of scattered cottages floating above, all waving a finger at petulant Momma Nature. The place really shouldn’t be there, it defying tides, climate change and hurricanes.

But there it was, and for me almost a decade of summers. Simple, squat beach coming homes settled against the Atlantic dunes. Some even might’ve had cable. These idylls, pieces of summer humanity bookended by seagull splattered protected dunes and unique species of both waterfowl and pine. To give you an idea about how removed Saltaire was from civilization, there were no cars. There were only boardwalks, quite literally made of boards. The only real motor vehicles around were a pair of beater, MacGyver’d pickup trucks that collected the garbage every Monday. Those and the occasional Rascal scooter. The rest of the time it was bicycles and flip-flops.

It was nice for a kid. I was especially lucky to get away for a month every summer from my boring inland existence to have access to not one, but two beaches to slop around in. To the south was the grey, unpredictable Atlantic, rife with seashells and angry waves that made bodyboarding a Knievel-like activity. To the north was the bay, clouded with jellyfish and puddled ferry exhaust but still some really good fishing. It was like a Caribbean red-headed stepchild, with more seaweed.

Hey. Here’s a fave tidbit of mine regarding the frontier nature of my summer ventures. Fire Island is less than 25 miles outside the City. It’s cradled by the Atlantic and Long Island’s Great South Bay. Winds there reign. A/C was not necessary in Saltaire. The two bodies of water acted like Freon, and with the prevailing winds, the entire island was buffeted all the time by a steady breeze. The temp on Fire Island was usually 15 degrees cooler than in the City, with next to no humidity most of the time.

Here’s another (hey, I’m only trying to establish rapport here): back in the day, cable TV was an expensive rarity out there, and the Internet was nary a wet dream. To get in touch with the outside world, you needed a solid, CRT TV with a pair of rabbit ears. Aerials. Back then, TV freqs still rode on airwaves, and you had to hook up your set with this doohickey to capture said waves to get broadcasts. Being so near the City, one could scoop up programming for free. Really. No cable fees. No HBO either, but hey, we all gotta make sacrifices. I used to get my Law & Order fix this way with virtual crystal clear reception aided by a few strands of aluminum foil. That and I also had the rowdy NYC rock and talk stations (which is where I first heard Howard Stern and the Greaseman) on the radio to comfort me.

This be frontier days.

A good portion of the time was spent away from the TV (and my blessed Nintendo), and being hunkered down with my folks, my sisters, my aunts, their kids, my mom’s parents and the occasional, extra member of my extended, unknown family that I only saw every third Xmas. The place my grandparents rented was pretty accommodating for all these bodies. I at least had a bedroom all to myself, which was often empty because, hey, two beaches. But every night it was sovereign that all 800 of us sat down and had dinner. First and foremost to eat, then to squeeze out whatever convo we could to extol the value made with our day.

This sucked. It was like your third stroll through the SATs. Sure, dinner chat was nice, but having to justify how meaningful your day was praise Jesus? Why? What for? Such a slog. And an embarrassing one at that. With these strangers? We all have to open up? Where’s my Nintendo? I’ve yet to beat Zelda on the Second Quest!

Here the respite of the beach became stifling, us having to make the elephant-in-the-room social mixing every dinner. Trying to maintain a faux-Norman Rockwell-esque image was quite the stressor. C’mon, let’s face facts. As much as you may love your family, being in close proximity with them for too extended a period can drive you all to a scene out of Lord of the Flies. My escape? A lot of the times, I scammed a meal at one of my friends’ places. Sometimes I even cooked. Really, anything to avoid the Gregory House routine. I just wanted to have my own summer, especially when I was a teenager. I needed to be far away from these strange adults what with their pretensions and an inability to socialize without wine and beer.

All right. Maybe back then I didn’t really think that way. Girls and scoring free beer were foremost on my puberty-ridden mind. What I did know that a vacation was supposed to be a getaway far away from what troubled you. Especially off the mainland…

Duncan (James) is on the summer vacation from hell. He finds himself wedged in the airless car with his timid, divorcee mother Pam (Collette), her boorish new boyfriend Trent (Carrell), and his stuck-up daughter Steph (Levin). Duncan and Trent do not get along at all, and now they’re both on their way to three months of antagonism. Duncan wanted to spent his summer with his dad out in California, but no go. Pam wants to establish a new family dynamic with Trent and Steph. Besides, Duncan is only 14, so what say does he have?

After barely a week at Trent’s Long Island summer shack, Duncan soon realizes that this trip is an outing for grown-ups only. He spends his days watching his mom, Trent and his buddies Kip (Corddry) and Joan (Peet) get drunk, high and adolescent along with their boozy neighbor Betty (Janney) who serves as the ringleader for this endless bacchanal. Duncan grinds his teeth and broods and knows if he doesn’t get out this place soon he’s gonna starting looking for a rifle and a clock tower.

At least Duncan finds an ally amidst all this sh*t. Betty’s leggy daughter Susanna (Robb) has been in his place before for many of these summers, and has been so ignored and jaded by these so-called vacations that she’s resigned herself to being a second-class citizen. In her droll manner Susanna puts it best, “It sucks here.”

Having had his fill, Duncan steals a bike and pedals into town for some action, anything else than feel alienated. He stumbles into the local pizza joint for a slice when a ruckus over at the Pac-Man machine catches his ears. Roguish Owen (Rockwell) is rocking the game and gets all philosophical over this arcade classic with the awkward Duncan. Owen recognizes Duncan as one of the hundreds of bored teens he’s seen on vacation here. Turns out, Owen is a manager at the local water park, and offers up Duncan the chance to swing by. Looks like this kid needs a little fun.

Finally, some adult who takes interest in Duncan’s lousy predicament! Duncan finishes up Owen’s game and later scoots over to Water Wizz to see what he’s all about. Turns out there is a side to the town that actually cares about what teens really want out of their summer: breakdancing…

I had a unique opportunity when watching The Way Way Back. I usually watch my movies alone, late at night when I won’t be interrupted. I get all curled up with my pen, clipboard and a few shots of Irish whiskey. Not the case this time.

My Dad had stopped by earlier. He crashed shortly after dinner and came to around midnight for a raid on the fridge. I had already bunkered down with the BD player and my drink, when he wandered into the den and asked what was up. I explained my blog activity. He saw Steve Carrell on the screen and made himself at home on the sofa. Until two in the morning, after the movie had concluded, I shared my first social viewing of the next subject here at RIORI. It reminded me of dinners at Saltaire, but not nearly as excruciating. There was some prodding, like this was a klatsch, but more often than not I kept my comments to myself. Most just went on the clipboard.

As grateful as I am for having my folks introduce me to the magical world of movies at a young, water-headed age, they are INSUFFERABLE to watch actual movies with. I always get an endless bombardment of questions. What’s going on? Who’s that guy? What just happened? What year is this? No, I mean it. Is it 1982 or 2026? What’s this lump on my thigh? Got any more whiskey? A piece of advice: if you really want to watch a movie, do it alone. Unless it’s porn. Then have a trio handy.

Here’s how Back managed to fit under the guidelines of The Standard. The movie was sort of well received, even though its feel had been done before. It wasn’t a flop, but there was a definite round peg/square hole thought process going into the marketing of Back, and its returns reflected that. The producers had a wonky idea in unleashing this little caper on a maybe-suspecting public that may have led to its early theatrical run demise. Back was dropped in the middle of the 2013 summer blockbuster season. A dinky little indie film about a disaffected teen—a tried-and-true but overdone movie device—had to go up against the likes of Pacific Rim, Despicable Me 2 and The Lone Ranger (okay, maybe not such a big threat there). What were the powers-that-be smoking to think that Juno Lite could compete against giant robots, train chases and…well, another Steve Carrell vehicle? This took some balls. Not a lot of brains, but a certain amount of cajones. Well, following your balls makes way for pulling a lot of boners.

Oh, shut up. That’s the best pun you’ve ever heard.

Anyway, a few scenes into The Way Way Back, I got a feeling of—to paraphrase Kurt Cobain—“this smells like Little Miss Sunshine.” I didn’t know until later that co-writer/directors Faxon and Rash wrote Sunshine’s screenplay. I figured that I enjoyed that pastiche well enough that I would enjoy Back, too. I’ll admit, not at first. I felt there was something lacking here, but I couldn’t be sure what. Admittedly, Back is slow to get started and find its footing. The humor takes a while to warm up, but when it eventually does, its momentum is gleeful and sunny without being too cloying.

Back is at heart a character study. It’s got a great ensemble cast, and the plot—approaching but not quite arriving at a derivative coming-of-age story—is well handled by these misfits. At times Back comes perilously close to self-parody; although the cast acts well enough, their roles are stereotypical (James’ awkward teen, Robb’s near-dream girl status, Collete’s willowy divorcee, etc). But there’s some meat on the bones, so I went along with second course.

Steve Carrell as Trent is a delight. He plays smarmy very well, and it’s nice change of pace for him to play against type. Carrell made his mark on The Daily Show playing a bumbling, nervous sort with a streak of naïveté sneaking in the background. With that job and later the movies roles he’s had, he’s carved out a niche as being cuddly. Not here. Trent is a blustery, prickly, condescending lout to everyone, and saves his best sh*t for Duncan. He delivers his cutting remarks with patronizing aplomb. My father’s comments about Trent—being an ardent Carrell fan—with increasing disbelief was repeating “What an assh*le!” punctuated with some giggles. Here Carrell plays a villain we love to hate, and that’s lots of fun.

Our two teen leads, James and Robb, play their ill at ease and snarky characters respectively with ease. I liked how their characters were so down with each other. There’s really no flirtation between them (well, not at first), just two shoved aside kids who befriend each other through their lonesomeness and shared unhappiness. Misery loves company and all that. It’s often how you make friends for the duration of a lousy family vacation in an unfamiliar place. And you can practically taste Duncan’s awkwardness on his little jaunt. F*ck, you can see it. Does James have a hunchback with that posture? And his flat affect throughout most of the film becomes such a badge of honor that when he actually cracks a smile, it’s almost jarring.

Robb has a subtle sass. Her aloofness and sarcasm teeters towards another teen stereotype: the unattainable girl next door. What’s nice here is that Faxon and Rash turn this concept on its ear. It is Susanna that seeks out Duncan, rather than the other way ‘round. Sensing his despair, Susanna figures she’s found a sympathetic ear to bend. Her mom and dad are recently divorced too, so there you have it. It’s the subtle touches here and there that makes Back work.

What’s not subtle at all in Back is Rockwell’s Owen, the slovenly, unhinged Water Wizz manager. I really liked him. A lot. His Owen was a f*cking riot, and Rockwell walked away with the movie. He had the best lines, and delivered them with such offhand, wicked humor that I was snickering then eventually laughing out loud. He reminded me of Bill Murray in Meatballs, alternating between d*ckhead and brotherly with equal effectiveness. Why isn’t he in more movies? He’s got “reliable character actor” written all over him.

What I got out of Back, if there was any real message to convey, was an examination of outsider status. Duncan and Susanna feel neglected and dissed. Trent crowbars his way into Pam’s already fragile state-of-mind, as well as Kip, Betty and Joan beating her over the head with wine, weed and all-night parties on the beach. Owen just loves being the rogue monkey, and flaunts being an oddball to any willing audience (or unwilling, as his long-suffering girlfriend Caitlyn, played gamely by Maya Rudolph). The entire cast is made up of fishes out of water, and we all at some point in or lives feel left of center. Pick your character from Back’s cast and play piggyback.

There are some films that challenge you, what with terse characters, labyrinthine plotting, dark humor and/or gut-wrenching dramatics. Back has none of that, and sometimes that works. Back is equal parts juvenile and dramatic, both with a light, offbeat touch (e.g.: the breakdancing scene). Yes, it’s offbeat, but manages to steer clear of the hackneyed term “quirky” that so plagues films like this one. I think “quirky” has replaced “original” as the go-to word to describe an indie film that defies a once undeniable uniqueness, at least by the pros. No, Back is not original, but it does have enough body to kept it afloat. I wouldn’t mind watching it again, so I got that going for me. Which is nice.

I know I’ve been pretty reserved and polite in this review. Back put me in a mellow mood that lasted until the next day. A first. And frankly I needed a break. After three crappy movies in a row, Back was a welcome respite. Not to worry though. I’m looking down the barrel of an action flick staring former Oscar shoo-in Jodie Foster. Next time I’ll return to being snarky and vicious. Promise.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Yeah, it takes a while to build up steam. But if you’re patient, it’ll ultimately be rewarding. Just keep holding…and holding. Still holding. Okay, you’re cleared for holding…

Stray Observations…

  • Did I mention that Back had some really good pacing? The movie ran a little over 90 minutes, and for this story, that was the Goldilocks zone.
  • “Not even food courts are safe.”
  • Pac-Man as philosophy? Candy Land as metaphor? I played a lot of video and board games at Saltaire. None of them spoke to me beyond “destroy your opponent.” Wait a minute…
  • “Enjoy therapy.”
  • The plate-clearing scene. Almost heartbreaking.
  • “The car’s just the right amount of sh*tty.”
  • A Fleetwood Mac reference?
  • It took me a while to divine the meaning of the movie’s title. On the road trip to Saltaire, we borrowed my grandparents’ huge Ford LTD wagon to transport all our sh*t. The trunk was so spacious, it even had a flip up seat like a Murphy bed, facing backwards. We commonly called this sitting in “the way, way back” of the car. The movie starts with Duncan balefully staring out from the way, way back, and (SPOILER) concludes that way too. A better metaphor than Candy Land, I think.

Next Installment…

Jodie Foster’s kid’s gone missing on her cross-country flight! This wasn’t in the Flightplan!