Every few months, RollingStone.com will shine a spotlight on a forgotten, neglected, overshadowed, underappreciated and/or critically maligned film that we love in a new series we’re calling “Be Kind, Rewind.” Our latest movie: Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.
Occasionally, you’ll hear the word muttered under the breath of someone waiting in line at Dunkin’ Donuts or the DMV, or screamed out loud while The Daily Show runs a clip of a Congressman cursing our so-called Kenyan/socialist/terrorist commander-in-chief because he latte-saluted. It hovers in the back of your mind as you read through clickbait posing as pertinent reporting or as you stumble across a spouse-swapping reality TV show while you’re channel-surfing. When Fox News regulars defend racists by calling them patriots, when the media treats murder cases as three-ring circuses, when a celebutante opens his or her mouth — like Tom Joad, the term “idiocracy” will be there.
“A movie that was originally a comedy, but became a documentary”: Google the title of Mike Judge’s 2006 movie Idiocracy and that’s the UrbanDictionary.com definition that greets you, a wiseass aside that doubles as a concise the-sky’s-already-fallen commentary. It’s not like the writer-director had set out to give us a buzzword for a cultural dumbing-down destined to end up 20,000 leagues below the common denominator. (This was a gentleman who was still best known for creating cartoon kids obsessed with headbanging and TP for their bungholes.) Judge just wanted to crack people up — his digs at corporate omnipresence and a complete bureaucratic breakdown may draw more blood than your average Beavis & Butt-head gag, but they’re still nestled next to an extended clip of a TV show entitled Ow! My Balls!
So folks who went to see his new film back in the late summer of ’06 — those proud few who were actually able to find it in the out-of-the-way theaters booked for its nanosecond-long run — couldn’t be faulted for thinking they were getting more high-concept lowbrow humor, or even a sci-fi version of Judge’s 1999 cult classic Office Space. Instead, they witnessed the smartest stupid movie ever made, a Swiftian satire that, seen now in the Year of Our Lord 11 A.K. (After Kardashian), feels more pertinent than ever. Just don’t say that in front anyone from the year 2505. You’ll simply get mercilessly mocked in a fake falsetto.
For those who haven’t seen it, Idiocracy starts off with a PSA-like prologue: Evolution at the beginning of the 21st century, we’re told, is at a crucial turning point. The herd is no longer being thinned out to favor the fittest. Qualities like intelligence and ingenuity have taken a backseat to the quantity of offspring produced by, say, a low-IQ high school football player who mindlessly fucks anything that moves. Einstein makes way for Joey Buttafuoco as the natural-selection poster boy. Stupid is as stupid does, and in this world, that means procreating at an exponentially higher rate than your average working-class Joe Lunchbox, much less your middle-class hoity-toity intellectuals.
In fact, our hero, an unambitious military everydude named Joe Bauers (played with maximum mellowness by Luke Wilson), is neither a brainiac nor a blue-collar grunt; he’s the most average person in the armed forces, the kind of guy whose primary skill is, according to his superior, “sittin’ on ass.” Joe does what he’s told even when he’s ordered to take part in an experiment involving a year-long cryogenic hibernation. While he and his fellow recruit, a streetwalker (Maya Rudolph, bringing the sneer), lie in a state of suspended animation, the program gets canceled. Time marches on, the collective I.Q. goes down; society’s descent is charted by the chain restaurant Fuddruckers slowly morphing over the centuries until it finally, inevitably changes its name to Buttfuckers. By the time Joe is awakened from his slumber, he finds himself in a third-world shantytown overrun with fast-food restaurants, mile-high garbage mounds, misspelled signs, blockbuster movies that are two-hour close-ups of someone’s ass, and obese mouthbreathers who speak a hybrid language comprised of “hillbilly, valley girl, inner-city slang and various grunts.” Welcome to America in the 26th century.
Seen now in the year 11 A.K. (After Kardashian), Idiocracy feels more pertinent than ever.
This is Judge’s vision of the future — a landscape of staggering vulgarity and franchising run amuck, where Carl’s Jr. can take your kids if you can’t pay for their “big-ass fries,” consumers eat tubs of butter while watching the Masturbation Channel and the President is a porn star/five-time TV wrestling champion. As he mentions in the interview below (jump to the 27-and-a-half mark), Judge was in line at Disneyland with his family when two women, each with kids in strollers, started screaming obscenities at each other. “I [started] thinking, what if the movie 2001, instead of the monolith and everything being pristine and advanced…what if it was The Jerry Springer Show and giant WalMarts?” With basic human intelligence now bred out of existence, the profoundly stupid have inherited the earth and they’ve turned it into both a giant, poorly run superstore and an Orwellian dystopia sponsored by Olive Garden.
As Joe, now deemed the smartest man alive by default, tries to get back to his era, he encounters the full spectrum of idiots, from his lawyer-turned-companion Frito Pendejo (this is how good Idiocracy is: not even Dax Shepard can ruin it) to a grinning manchild who’s the U.S. Secretary of State. He also runs across such “outrageous” imaginings as a healthcare system bogged down by ineffectiveness and institutional rot, an aggressive police force who pepper-spray people at will and corporate brands merged into one conglomerate colossus. (When Rudolph’s character attempts to make a phone call, the voice on the other line greets her with “thanks for using AOL-TimeWarner-Taco Bell-U.S. Government Long Distance, how can I help you?”) This is where the funhouse mirror Judge holds up starts to reflect back in ways that make the laughs catch in your throat. It’s not as if these things weren’t fair game back in 2006, so much as we’ve now seen some of the satirical fodder warped and repeated ad nauseam on whatever is the current equivalent of the nightly news. For every dozen Zuckeresque visual gags or easy-pickings jokes about incoherent nincompoops, there’s an exaggerated dig at the less-than-stellar elements of society that have intensified in their sting. Time has been kind to Idiocracy in more ways than one.
It’s certainly been kinder to the film than Fox was back in the day, when the company pulled a legendary burial job on the movie. Having sat on it for almost two years, the powers that be then shuffled it into a contractually obligated handful of theaters (excluding New York entirely) and essentially refused to promote it. Some said it was because they expected the sort of booger-flicking, frog-baseball shenanigans of Beavis and Butt-head and instead got a movie that insulted the dumb-comedy demographic; others have claimed that the jokes at the expense of well-known brands like Starbucks and Costco would spook potential Fox sponsors. Either way, the finished result was treated like a leper. An Esquire article at the time painfully recounted Judge failing to get someone from the head office on the phone to sign off on showing a trailer to a journalist. Everyone from Time‘s Joel Stein to the über-fanboys at Ain’t It Cool News demanded to know what the deal was, and were met with radio silence. Judge simply stewed then shrugged and went back to his drawing board.
But like Office Space, Judge’s earlier live-action comedy that opened to confusion and the sound of crickets, Idiocracy found a second life on DVD and a cult audience that only seems to be getting larger. While doing the promotional rounds for his HBO show Silicon Valley earlier this year, Judge told The Verge that people are constantly sending him details and pictures of real-life idiocracy-style scenarios and then telling him “Hey, you predicted it right!” The term is now showing up in Op-Ed columns on everything from the economy to the Media Entertainment Industrial Complex. And as reality keeps heaping dumb-ass absurdity upon absurdity upon us, the movie continues to hit the jugular as much as pokes the funnybone. It may not have the pop-cultural currency of Beavis and Butt-head, the awards and accolades that King of the Hill earned, or the insta-quotability of Office Space (though say “Why you have no have tattoo?!?” to a fan, and watch that person crack up). Idiocracy may, however, end up being the one work of Judge’s that seems to get better and funnier with age. No, it’s not a movie that was originally a comedy and then became a documentary quite yet. But just give it a generation or two.