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Review: “Idiocracy” (2006)

“Welcome to Costco. I love you.”
~~ Costco greeter

Films about the future have a tendency to push certain rather optimistic ideas: technological advancement; heightened intelligence; evolution. Even those with less-than-positive views of time forthcoming, like “A Clockwork Orange,” depict humans as creatures still capable of higher-order thinking skills. They are capable of affecting technological change. In so many futuristic movies, progress is assumed.

You know what Mike Judge thinks about directors and moviegoers who make assumptions? Rearrange the order of “ass” and “u” in and you’ll have a clearer picture. Or just watch “Idiocracy,” Judge’s hilarious, barbed satire masquerading as a crude, rude, doorknob-dumb comedy. Judge, see, he does not pity the fool who harbors bright dreams and aspirations for the future of mankind. His future contains no advancement or progress. His future contains a movie called “Ass,” an Oscar darling (it won Best Screenplay) that spends 90 minutes with the camera trained on naked buttocks. And let’s not forget The Violence Channel’s most popular show, “Ow My Balls!”

Don’t be misled by gags like this, or the hoards of idiots and the idiotic things they say (example: “Why come you got no tattoo?”); satires don’t come much sharper than “Idiocracy.” Judge’s true genius lies in the fact that he can make movies that look dumb and inconsequential but carry the unmistakable sting of truth. (Think back to Johnny Knoxville’s “Jackass.” Did you watch it? Did you laugh? Are you getting that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach yet?) The “Office Space” creator is blithely unafraid to show the future as he sees it: a tragic dumbing-down of mankind. Joe (Luke Wilson), a military man, becomes his mouthpiece. Average in every way, Joe volunteers, along with prostitute Rita (Maya Rudolph), for a secret government hibernation project. I’m sure you know it goes wrong. Joe and Rita wake up 500 years in the future, in 2505, and discover something is missing from the world, something called “all the smart people.” How did this happen? The narrator (Earl Mann, cheeky little devil) anticipated this question and has an answer ready: “Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence. With no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most, and left the intelligent to become an endangered species.”

The wall-to-wall hilarity in “Idiocracy” develops as Joe and Rita discover that they are part not of an endangered species but an extinct species. Only Mike Judge could dream up a world like this one, where the U.S. president (Terry Crews) begins his presidential addresses with one word (“shiiiiiiiiiit”); holds a contest to elect the Secretary of Energy and thinks the 12-year-old winner (Brendan Hill) is a safe bet; has a Secretary of Treasury (Sara Rue) everyone calls “Fun Bags”; and sees no problem watering crops nationwide with an energy drink — Brawndo, which actually exists — because “it’s got what plants crave: electrolytes.” Joe and Rita, two Einsteins in a world of Forrest Gumps, find a totally inept guide in Frito (Dax Shepard), who went to law school at Costco (only because his father, an alum, pulled strings). Joe’s brain catches the eye of the president, and soon he’s embroiled in a race to save himself from certain death in a prison smackdown by solving the whole country’s problems.

“Idiocracy” is such a comic gem that it’s difficult to know where the fun starts and ends. The endless parade of moronical characters is a joy to behold, with Shepard proving again his ability to play dumb is second only to Lisa Kudrow’s. Crews and his “cabinet” (including David “Michael Bolton” Herman) have a ball waxing dumb, and their spirit is catching. Running gags like the one about Brawndo — it’s got what (fill in the blank) crave — don’t get old because they’re so blatantly on point. Most crucial to the looniness is Luke Wilson as Joe, the quintessential no-frills Everyman. His shock and disgust at this world of Starbucks handjobs and Brawndo drinking fountains is muted enough to draw big laughs. And dread. For when the laughing stops, “Idiocracy” leaves us with a sense that not only is this future inevitable, it might be here already. Brought to you by Carl’s Jr., no doubt.

Grade: A

Review: “3:10 to Yuma” (2007)

Russell Crowe waxes philosophic -- and handles a mean shotgun -- in "3:10 to Yuma."

Russell Crowe waxes philosophic -- and wields a mean double-barrel -- in "3:10 to Yuma."

There’s a brief scene early in “3:10 to Yuma”* that cuts straight to film’s conflicted conscience: Outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) sizes up one of his holier-than-thou captors and remarks, “Even bad men love their mamas.” And with that one seemingly junkheap-bound line of dialogue “Yuma” reveals itself to be a different kind of Western – one where the villains are intelligent and adaptable and the righteous are greedy and downright foolhardy in their moral inflexibility. One thing is for sure: a run-of-the-mill Saturday morning cowboys-and-Indians picture “Yuma” is certainly not.

At the heart of this Western is Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a down-on-his-luck Arizona rancher who serves as proof that the good don’t always triumph. (Sometimes they even fail miserably.) Broke, weary and nearly crippled by a Civil War injury, he’s all but run off his land by moneygrubbers who want to cash in on the ever-expanding railroad industry. His oldest son William (Logan Lerman) and wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) don’t believe they’ll survive the season. Then Evans stumbles upon Wade robbing a stagecoach, and his luck begins to change. Soon, he volunteers as part of the caravan scheduled to transport Wade to Contention, where the robber will board a train headed to Yuma prison and end up with his neck getting intimate with a hangman’s noose.

The trip, of course, is far from simple: There’s a misguided attempt to pass through Apache-controlled lands, and Wade’s gang — led by the vicious Charlie Prince (an impressively menacing Ben Foster) — tries to free the infamous robber at every stop. It’s a nonstop ride of violent action and quietly devastating character interaction that trails into an unexpected (and some might say unfulfilling) end.

Ah, the end. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth has taken place over the film’s final minutes, with most everyone railing and wringing their hands in frustration. Of course, the conclusion will not be revealed here, but it must be said that the film’s finale is the key to understanding what makes “Yuma” tick. The end offers no panacea — its ambiguity serves a purpose, a big one, and it’s up to viewers to do the mental heavy lifting.

But the end is only a small part of why “Yuma” is such a worthwhile venture. As an action film, “Yuma” is surprisingly bloody and brutal. Set against the unforgiving dustbowl of the searing Arizona desert, the shootouts and mine collapses and top-speed horse chases seem larger than life. (Then again, that’s what Westerns are, in some small part, about — showing the truths of life in unflinchingly hard ways.) But with a small cast studded with high-profile powerhouse actors, the acting in “Yuma” is hardly shabby, either. Legendary Peter Fonda has some fun with his character, Byron McElroy, a mean-as-a-snake bounty hunter who’d just as soon but a bullet in Wade’s eye than deliver him to the station. Alan Tudyk, a wildly underappreciated comic actor, draws a few laughs as Doc Potter, a large animal vet who unwitting gets roped into Wade’s caravan. And a note here about that Ben Foster, who tears into Charlie Prince like a man in throes of demonic possession: What an actor this guy’s turning out to be. 

For the most part, Bale and Crowe run this show, and with good reason. Bale, known for taking darker roles, transforms Dan from a one-note do-gooder into a conflicted character, a man who chooses to do right not because he’s a saint but because it’s all he’s got left. Ben Wade is the kind of role Crowe, who excells at creating laconic, morally amibuous characters, was born to play. With his crooked smile and mirthful eyes, he’s near perfect as Wade, a crook who lives as much by his wits as his pistol. He’s equal parts venom and compassion, and he sees what so few other characters do: Morality is entirely subjective.

Though Crowe alone is almost worth the admission price, there’s another reason to give “Yuma” a chance: Any Western where there is nary a tumbleweed to be seen, well, isn’t afraid to take chances.

Grade: B+

*Readers who have seen the original 1957 film: How does this one stack up?