By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Idiocracy,” 20th Century Fox, 2007]
It would take a hardier soul than me to figure out why social satire in American movies is as hot as four-day-old fish and why merciless examples of the genre on American TV (think “The Simpsons” and “South Park”) thrive for years. Maybe Americans appreciate a good flogging, but don’t cotton to paying $10 a ticket for the privilege. Or maybe, just maybe, Americans don’t quite understand that “The Simpsons” and “South Park” are reaping guffaws at their expense. (That would account for the box office failure of Parker and Stone’s “Team America: World Police,” which ripped nothing so much as the gut-bucket ignorance of Yankee prejudices.) Surely Mike Judge would choose Explanation B, since his hit MTV series “Beavis and Butt-Head” was adored by the same clueless demographic it savagely mocked, and since his new film “Idiocracy” paints such a hilariously bleak portrait of Homo Americanus that it was essentially censored and dumped late last year, unleashed onto only seven screens on the entire North American continent, none of them east of the Mississippi.
Which is why you’ve never heard of it Fox treated it like a plague blanket. It’s not too surprising by way of a military hibernation experiment that sends clueless Everyman Luke Wilson 500 years into the future, Judge furiously limns out an America completely clogged with rank stupidity. There are too many barbed jokes to ingest on one viewing, but Judge explicitly blames dumbed-down media, ubiquitous advertising, anti-intellectual Bushian politics, brainless entertainment and technologically induced laziness. In other words, Rupert Murdoch Fox News, of course, takes a drubbing, but virtually every arm of the News Corporation, which owns 20th Century Fox, is also lambasted. And Judge takes no prisoners his style is often crude and cruel, which is as it should be.
Still, the mostly obese citizens in Judge’s future world who can’t add or entertain a thought that doesn’t involve immediate sensory indulgence share the responsibility for the collapse of civilization. (A memorable throwaway image: in a dilapidated city inundated with garbage, cars continue to drive off the edge of a broken highway ramp, one after the other.) It’s a messy movie, and Judge’s low budget sometimes forces him to cut corners. But it should be seen and kudoed just for its principled stance against the cretinism most American entertainment happily exploits. Ah, if only the Bush-voting, war-mongering, “American Idol”-hypnotized, “Wheel of Fortune”-challenged, book-allergic, super-sized, Velveeta-slurping wrestling-&-Toby Keith devotees out there would see “Idiocracy” and take the slap in the face like grown-ups.
Still, Judge’s film isn’t despairing for true despair, go to Laurie Collyer’s “Sherrybaby,” one of 2006’s many recovering-junkie-struggle movies, a sub-subgenre decidedly less beloved by audiences than by serious actors looking for open ground in which to ply their craft. By any standard, Collyer’s film is indelible, seething with conviction, and so expertly written you want to crawl out of your skin as you’re faced again and again with the heroine’s enraged struggle with society. Collyer knows realism her previous film, “Nuyorican Dream,” is a heart-rending inner-city doc. But this movie’s engine is Maggie Gyllenhaal as an ex-smack slave fresh out of prison and looking to get back with her young daughter who has been living comfortably with her childless aunt and uncle, thank you. Boiling family resentments, feelings of disconnect from her child, struggles with her p.o., N.A. meetings, flophouse problems, having to suck off a civil worker to get a job, jonesing to escape into a heroin haze all the while Gyllenhaal’s Sherry has the burdens of Job, and the actress is so fierce and committed to fleshing out this ex-stripper/hardened abuse victim into three dimensions that it’s impossible to forget her. But there’s suffering here, for her and us, make no mistake maybe catch “Idiocracy” afterwards, and a future of wrestler-Presidents, crotch-kicking sitcoms and stupefying illiteracy will look attractive.
“Idiocracy” (20th Century Fox) and “Sherrybaby” (Universal Studios) are both available on DVD.