By Michelle Orange
At last, Mike Judge and Justin Timberlake will have something to talk about over gluey hors d’oeuvres at the MTV Christmas party. Last month, Sony Pictures sent Timberlake’s first film “Edison Force” straight to DVD, and Judge’s second live-action feature, “Idiocracy,” looked like it was going to face a similar fate after Fox postponed its release indefinitely. Last week, it was reported that “Idiocracy” would indeed be released on September 1, but, in a triumph of studio passive-aggression, with zero marketing and only in seven cities: Austin, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Toronto, Atlanta, and Chicago. Sweet of them to look so fondly upon Judge’s home state of Texas (the film was also shot in Austin, where Judge is based), but somehow I’m guessing the gesture was lost on the writer/director, as the glaring omission of New York means the review coverage is considerably cut down.
“Idiocracy” stars Luke Wilson as a dim-witted soldier who agrees to be frozen in a Pentagon experiment, expecting to be revived a year later. Instead he’s forgotten, and five hundred years pass before he wakes to find himself, in a society dumbed-down to the point of plant food, to be the smartest man alive. The film was shot in 2004 and has become the ultimate tease for Mike Judge fans desperate for a fix: budget problems, production problems, and test-screening problems have ratcheted the bad buzz up so high only your Irish setter can hear it; now this.
Of course, Judge’s relationship with Fox has been an awkward one almost from the start; you and your Irish setter may have a more effective system of communication. Around the time that shooting for “Idiocracy” wrapped, Fox was hedging heavily about the fate of “King of the Hill,” Judge’s animated series for the network, to the point that the entire operation was shut down following its eighth season. Judge told the writers and animators to move on, only to have Fox call them scrambling back for one more season. In June of this year an Esquire profile of Judge stressed the strange and strained relationship he has with Fox, and the confusion he expressed about the fate of “Idiocracy” proved prescient. “I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Judge said, describing the process of finishing the photography two years ago only to get the bait and switch from various executives over special effects and then, a year ago, when the film was finally finished, marketing. “They’re just overthinking it, which is what they always do, It’s just about an average dumb-ass person who winds up in the future. It’s not about ‘What if you could travel through time…‘ It’s just dragged on way too long a good seven months longer than “Office Space.” I could have made another movie after I locked the picture before this one comes out.”
What makes the decision to turf “Idiocracy” to 125 screens nationwide that much more unbelievable is Judge’s track record with 20th Century Fox; namely, “Office Space.” Released in February 1999 on a decent 1740 screens (to compare, “Little Miss Sunshine” is currently on 1400 screens), theories differ about why the corporate satire tanked so hard, but most come down to Fox’s bungled, barely-there marketing campaign. The film limped to 10 million dollars and faded away, but found an audience on DVD so voracious that in 2005 a trumped-up special edition was released (no Judge commentary) to keep the party going. By 2004 the “Office Space” DVD had made over 40 million dollars, is now acknowledged as a bona fide cult hit and has broken every record in Fox video history. That’s the kind of thing gets a studio’s attention, and, you would think, respect. In an interview this May, Judge had this to say about a sequel:
Fox has been asking about it. I don’t know. I finished this last movie I did, and I’ve got something else that I wrote that’s more like “Office Space,” in that it’s smaller and kind of character driven stuff, but I don’t know. I haven’t been working on a sequel. If I don’t just completely retire, I’d like to do another live action movie, something along the lines of “Office Space” I think. I’m kind of thinking about Christopher Guest’s career. How he, in the 90s, started making these little movies that have an audience, and I’d like to do something like that. Kind of lower budget comediesÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ “Idiocracy,” I think, is coming out Labor Day weekend. They told me that is the official release date. That was kind of a bigger effects movie and I think I’d like to get back to doing at least one or two more like “Office Space.”
What Judge is saying, and has stated more blatantly elsewhere, is that he is done with studio movies, and in future would rather raise money on his own for low budget features. And who can blame him; to quote Dirk Calloway: With friends like this, who needs friends?
Could “Idiocracy” be as bad as Fox clearly thinks it is? Test screening reviews have been mixed, but the general wisdom is that Mike Judge fans will go see Mike Judge movies. Following the quiet opening last Friday, a few reviews have trickled in, including a rave from the LA Times and a pan from Entertainment Weekly. In between are some dogged conspiracy theorists and the expected love letters from Judge die-hards. For most of us it will be a while Fox has not yet issued a DVD release date before we can decide whether Fox executives made the right decision or are indeed what the “Idiocracy” director might call “ahead of their time.”