Or maybe the better question is: In a world where films such as Norbit, Epic Movie and Kickin' It Old Skool can get wide release patterns and large amounts of studio promotion, is there any room for a genuinely funny and smart movie? Apparently not, at least in the eyes of 20th Century Fox. For while the studio gave extensive support to one of the aforementioned duds, the lame spoof Epic Movie (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 2% - that's right, two), Fox let one of the most hilarious and most insightful comedies of the decade, Mike Judge's brilliant, brutal satire Idiocracy, fester on its shelves for nearly a year before finally releasing it, nearly sight unseen, to all of seven cities and 130 screens. (By contrast, Epic Movie was released to more than 2,800 screens in its opening weekend.)
Judge, the Texas-based creator of prized comedic material such as the animated series Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill, as well as the critically acclaimed cult favorite Office Space, directed, co-wrote and co-produced Idiocracy, which is done no justice by a simple written explanation. But here's one anyway: a thoroughly average Army librarian (Luke Wilson) and a hooker (Saturday Night Live's Maya Rudolph) are selected for a military experiment aimed at preserving the best soldiers for future wars. Each is put into a hibernation pod for what is supposed to be a year. But through a series of mishaps, the pair are forgotten about and remain in stasis for five centuries. By the time Wilson and Rudolph wake up in the year 2505, the world is full of - morons. The top-rated TV show is called Ow! My Balls!, and it's about exactly what you think it is. The number-one movie is entitled Ass - 90 minutes of a man's naked ass. (It wins eight Oscars, including best screenplay.) Corporations run everything: Costcos are as big as cities and sell everything from sexual favors to law degrees. Starbucks now specialize in handjobs. A fictional sports-drink company literally has bought the FDA and FCC, and its product is so common that water is now only used in toilets - which, by the way, are combined with Lay-Z-Boys to allow for the watching of Ow! My Balls! without interruption.
That's just a taste of the highlights out heroes find in their new reality, along with the fact that, pretty much by default, Wilson is now the smartest person on Earth. Not surprisingly, that news makes his life decidedly more complicated as he adjusts to life among the impossibly stupid, though some things are the same - for example, Fox News still exists and is as popular as ever, even if it is not anchored by muscle-bound (male) and buxom (female) nimrods. Meanwhile, the resulting discoveries and misadventures of Wilson and Rudolph lead to plenty of gut-busting scenes and some clever commentary by Judge on the state of affairs in today's society. But very few people got a chance to see what was up with this movie thanks to Fox's decision to bury it in a virtual lead coffin underneath the proverbial six feet of concrete. Dump jobs of movies deemed, for whatever reason, to be commercial or critical failures aren't that uncommon in Hollywood, but this one had some feeling to it. In addition to the puny screen count (including not being screened anywhere in New York City), Fox produced no trailers or press materials for the film. So despite Judge's strong reputation and Idiocracy's overall positive reviews - that is, by the few critics able to see the movie in the first place - the movie made less than $450,000 from its theatrical run.
So what exactly happened? The honchos at Fox aren't talking, and Judge has not taken advantage of opportunities to raise hell about the mistreatment of his movie. (Some think that Idiocracy may have never been released if another director had made it - that it saw the meager light of day to appease Judge, who has made the studio millions thanks to King of the Hill.) One of the more popular theories is that Idiocracy was simply too good for its own good, that it was too effective in its skewering of contemporary culture and the dumbing down of America. (To which I would say, er, didn't the Fox brass know what they were getting into in the first place? You don't throw a director $30 million or so if you didn't already read the script, right?)
At least Fox has given Idiocracy a fairly decent push as a DVD release - there are actual clips available on the studio's home entertainment site, if you can find them - and the home version has made more than $9 million, so it is being seen. But not enough. A movie this funny and this on-point deserves as large of an audience as possible, if only to shame Rupert Murdoch and his minions for acting out the movie's central premise 500 years early through their own stupidity. So the next time you're at the video store or working on your Netflix queue, make seeing Idiocracy a priority, please. And do remember to empty your bladder before starting it up.
For more information about Idiocracy, including the aforementioned clips and several articles about its non-support, go to the film's Wikipedia page here. And a shout-out to my friend Beth for reminding me about the existence of Idiocracy after I had first heard about it last fall. Her musings about the film can be found here.