It looks as though Mike Judge, the satiric mastermind behind Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill and Office Space, just got punked again. By his own studio. For the third time.
Seven years ago, 20th Century Fox dumped Judge's anti-corporate cri de coeur Office Space, but it became a bona fide smash on DVD, one of the studio's biggest sellers that year. Last year Fox unceremoniously cancelled Judge's animated hit King of the Hill, perhaps the most socially precise comedy on American television, before giving it a last-minute reprieve.
Now it's the turn of Judge's second feature, the splenetic, pitch-black satire Idiocracy, which wrapped nearly two years ago. Fox didn't screen it for critics, ran no print ads or trailers, and dumped it on 130 screens nationwide. Apparently the lesson of Office Space's success went entirely unlearned.
Knowing Judge's sterling track record as an American satirist, I had to find out what went wrong. Usually a film eliciting such utter contempt from its own backers is a disaster. Far less often, it's a masterpiece.
The plot: in the future, the educated and intelligent will be massively out-bred by moronic A-type prison-fodder and Nascar idiots, to the point that all knowledge of engineering, agriculture, medicine and literature will be lost to misty memory. Luke Wilson plays ordinary Joe Bowers, chosen to be frozen by the military in 2005, who accidentally wakes up in 2505 to find a broken-down, thuggish America where language has become a patois of football chants, hip-hop slang and grunts denoting rage, pleasure and priapic longing, where citizens are obese, violent, ever-horny and narcotised by consumerism, TV and fast food. Everything's branded, and people have names such as BMW, Mountain Dew and Frito. TV features the Violence Channel (its signature show: "Ow, My Balls!") and the Masturbation Channel ("Keepin' America 'batin' for 300 years!"). The President's a Smackdown champ and porno superstar, and there's a mulleted wrestler on the billion-dollar bill. And everyone in the future thinks that Joe Bowers, suddenly the smartest man on earth, "talks like a fag".
There is venomous anti-corporate satire throughout the movie, remarkable mainly because Judge names real corporations. I was astounded - and invigorated - by the sheer vitriol Judge directs at these companies, who surely now regret permitting the use of their licensed trademarks. Like fast-food giant Carl's Jr, which in 2006 sells 6,000-calorie burgers the size of dictionaries under the slogan, "Don't Bother Me, I'm Eating". In Idiocracy, this has devolved into "Fuck You! I'm Eating!" And every commercial transaction has been sexualised: at Starbucks you can get coffee plus a handjob (or a "full body" latte).
Idiocracy isn't a masterpiece - Fox seems to have stiffed Judge on money at every stage - but it's endlessly funny, and my friends and I will be repeating certain lines for months (especially while eating), a sure sign of a cult hit. And word got out fast: I saw it last Saturday in a half-empty house. Two days later, same place, same show - packed-out. There's an audience for this movie, but its natural demographic barely knows it's out there.
Behind the movie's satire lie long-term social changes like the stupidisation of the American electorate over 30 years through deliberate underfunding of public education, the corporate takeover of every area of public and private life, and the tendency of the media - particularly Fox News - to substitute anti-intellectual rage and partisan division for reasoned public debate.
Some will argue that Fox has also given us some of the best television of the last 15 years - true - and that if quality sells as well as garbage, then the bottom line is served either way.
So why was Idiocracy dumped? Perhaps because it taps a growing anti-corporate mood in the nation; perhaps because it expertly satirises the jingoistic self-absorption that now passes for public culture. Or perhaps because more people are sick of the modern America that Fox energetically helped to build than the Fox corporation itself is ready to admit.
While I don't believe a trailer was ever made for it, here's something that someone put up on YouTube. If you watch it, let me know what you think.