The Stupid Movie Controversy of 2006 drew to a close with the Jan. 9 release of this orphaned brainchild of writer-director Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill). Proving its proposition that America is getting dumber by the day, this feel-bad satire opened on Sept. 1 in a half-dozen North American cities cloaked in a total P.R. blackout: no press release, no advance screenings, no trailer. The existence of a poster was rigorously investigated. Calls to Moviefone in Austin were rumored to announce showtimes for Untitled Mike Judge Project. New York, with its dense concentration of influential critics, was pointedly not one of the theatrical markets. Local bloggers were quick to smell a rat.
As extensively reported, rumored, and speculated on by Bilge Ebiri, editor of thescreengrab.com, Idiocracy appeared to be the target of deliberate suppression by Twentieth Century Fox, the same studio that had previously watched Office Space go from big-screen flop to home-video hit (and with whom Judge retains a relationship through Fox channel mainstay King of the Hill). Word of poor test screenings and brutal studio cuts—common enough indignities—were soon followed by reports of more anomalous neglect: industry- mandated trade screenings canceled at the last minute, print requests by festival programmers ignored, stingy theatrical bookings. A profile of Judge in Esquire was plotted around the arrival of a phone call from Fox granting the filmmaker permission to screen an Idiocracy trailer to the journalist. The call never came.
Stupid is as stupid does, and the dumping of Idiocracy was, to speak its own language, totally fucking retarded. Set in the 26th century, the film imagines a dipshit dystopia where corporate mendacity and consumer apathy have merged in apocalyptic symbiosis. Judge is bracingly specific in his targets, daring to name names, punk ad campaigns, and desecrate corporate logos. A Costco the size of Calcutta sprawls in the shadow of a 50-story garbage heap. Couch-potato shantytowns cluster near Starbucks, now in the business of grande hand jobs and "full-release lattes." The Carl's Jr. star wears a permanent snarl, and Fuddruckers has been rechristened Buttfuckers. Even Fox News comes in for a roasting, anchored by a shirtless muscleman and zaftig über-bimbo.
Judge doesn't just bite the hand that feeds him, he barfs all over his audience. Language has degenerated into a slur of grunts, insults, Ebonics, and Valleyspeak. Slumped on La-Z-Boys equipped with built-in toilets, feeding tubes dangling from their slack jaws, the dirtbag citizenry gawk at the latest episode of Ow! My Balls! on the Violence Channel. Ass, the No. 1 movie in the nation, consists of a single sustained butt shot with occasional flatulence on the soundtrack. (In granting Best Picture and Screenplay Oscars to this Warholian stunt, the Academy, at least, has smartened up in the five centuries since Crash.)
Luke Wilson stars as Joe Bowers, an Army slacker cryogenically frozen by the government in 2006, who wakes up 500 years later when the experiment goes awry. Maya Rudolph co-stars as a hooker named Rita, on loan from Upgrayedd (Brad "Scarface" Jordon), her pimp ("the double D stands for a double dose of pimpin'"). The casting of these two boobs is the film's maddening masterstroke: Wilson's generic, low-wattage charm and Rudolph's shallow SNL effect barely register in the onslaught of Judge's future schlock. Offering up such mediocrities as audience surrogates may be the film's most cynical gesture.
America—fuck, yeah! Not since Team America has a studio picture dared such irreverence. And not since Office Space has a studio reject so eagerly awaited its cult. Snide, caustic, and uproariously rude, Idiocracy rivals Borat for fury, Fast Food Nation for outrage, and, at least in the DVD cut, Phat Girlz for sloppiness (to name three other 2006 Fox releases). For all its searing indignation, Idiocracy trips on a conceptual level by loading its satire on the consumer end of the idiot equation rather than addressing those who shrewdly capitalize on dumbass passivity. There's an intelligent design to the dumbing-down of America, but Judge largely conceives the devolution of civil society as an inexorable law of nature. Considering how far up the collective ass he's put his foot, that's a forgivable misstep. NATHAN LEE
If you watch only one movie from 2006 about turn-of-the-century magicians, make it . . . well, it's pretty much a toss-up. While The Prestige wins on style, The Illusionist features excellent performances from Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti. Norton plays the titular illusionist with an air of supreme confidence, as he attempts to woo Jessica Biel away from the crown prince of Austria. Giamatti gets second billing but probably more screen time as a police official who isn't quite totally corrupt. The problem with both movies comes from their adherence to the old tropes of con- artist flicks like The Sting . . . once you've seen a few movies where "everything is not as it seems," predicting the twist gets easy—and The Illusionist is easier than most. The special features are scant; blow on the documentaries and they'd disappear. JORDAN HARPER
Robin Williams falls in love over the phone in The Night Listener. The Oscar-nominated documentary Street Fight gains new relevance with the election of Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker. From Criterion, Robert Bresson's Mouchette boasts a new digital transfer and many extras. The Rock stars in the football melodrama Gridiron Gang, while Ricky Gervais anchors the first season of HBO's Extras. Mike Judge (see above) and Don Hertzfeldt curate the omnibus The Animation Show Box Set, guaranteed to offend everyone at least once.