- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2007

The biggest movie mystery of 2006 wasn’t whether audiences would forgive “Apocalypto” director Mel Gibson — they did — or whether Daniel Craig would make a good James Bond — he did.

It’s why a filmmaker with a successful track record had his latest film ignominiously dumped by the studio with which he’s worked for years.

Such is the puzzling fate of Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy.”

The former engineer started a national debate with his 1990s MTV series “Beavis and Butt-Head.” “King of the Hill” premiered on Fox 10 years ago and is still going strong — the 11th season of the animated comedy starts Jan. 21. He made his first live-action film in 1999; “Office Space” is a cult classic.

So why did Twentieth Century Fox sit on his futuristic comedy for two years before quietly releasing it Sept. 1 in just 125 theaters in seven cities — Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Austin and Toronto? One film chain owner told Cinematical.com that film festival programmers that asked to show “Idiocracy” were rebuffed by Fox. The studio didn’t release a single ad or poster promoting the film.

If you managed to hear about it, Moviefone couldn’t help you find showings. Steve Sailer, a film critic for the American Conservative magazine, points out that Fox didn’t tell Moviefone the film’s name, so it was called simply “Untitled Mike Judge Comedy” on the listings site.

“Idiocracy” finally gets a nationwide release this week with its appearance on DVD, but Fox is still making little effort to promote the film.

Fox didn’t respond to a request for comment, and Mr. Judge isn’t talking, either. So we may never know exactly why the film was spiked, although there are plenty of theories.

The most easily dismissed is that the film is a stinker. “Idiocracy” stars Luke Wilson (“Legally Blonde”) as Pvt. Joe Bowers. As the most average man in the Army, he’s recruited for an experiment that will have him in hibernation for a year. But the system breaks down, and he sleeps until 2505. America has become so dumbed-down that this average Joe is now the world’s smartest man. Alternately mocked for speaking so “faggy” — American English has devolved to a patois of hillbilly and inner-city — and begged to solve the nation’s problems, Joe just wants to get back home.

Variety heralded the film as “absolutely a satire for its time.” While its special effects look rather cheap, and its cast doesn’t seem to milk the script’s comic vision for all the laughs it might, “Idiocracy” is a pretty funny movie that pokes a sharp stick at America’s deepest cultural problems.

Harry Knowles, proprietor of the hot media Web site Ain’t It Cool News, calls it one of the best films Fox released last year. He points out that Fox released many films much worse than “Idiocracy,” such as “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” (the latter also starring Mr. Wilson).

But Time magazine’s Joel Stein echoes the Fox party line and argues that because “every ad and trailer the studio put together for it tested atrociously,” Fox simply couldn’t make a good advertisement for the film.

That theory becomes implausible when you consider that the film was made by a popular director, has a fairly marketable star and includes tons of gags tailor-made for a trailer.

Mr. Knowles has a more prosaic explanation. He lives in Austin, where Mr. Judge lives and where the movie was filmed, and has talked to people inside Fox and “Idiocracy.”

“From what I heard took place, director Mike Judge had some difficulties, personality-wise, with Tom Rothman,” Mr. Knowles reports. The chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, he says, “is a very gruff personality … . The top filmmakers that work with him are people like James Cameron and George Lucas, filmmakers who are basically using Fox as a distribution rather than a production company.” He says Peter Jackson took “Halo” elsewhere and Bryan Singer didn’t get to helm “X-Men III” because of his strong-arm style.

“Rothman is a very hands-on, very aggressive executive,” Mr. Knowles says, and so are his underlings. Mr. Judge “alienated and angered the powers that be” with his independent spirit.

That conflict affected more than the film’s promotion. “The way studios tend to control directors on films that need visual effects work is to hold back the last bit of money until they get the cut they want,” Mr. Knowles says. That might explain the low quality of “Idiocracy’s” vision of the future.

This inside scoop likely won’t stop the conspiracy theorists. One rumor making the rounds is that some of companies lampooned in the film were mulling a lawsuit. In the future, the still-ubiquitous Starbucks has kept its popularity by offering “Gentleman’s Lattes.”

Of course, one target of the film’s satire is a division of the studio’s parent company. In Mr. Judge’s vision of the future, Fox News Channel anchors are bodybuilders and strippers, although barely more sensationalistic than they are today. Perhaps News Corp. head Rupert Murdoch doesn’t have a sense of humor — or maybe his executives fear he doesn’t.

Mr. Sailer is one who thinks it’s more about content than conflict. ” ‘Idiocracy’s‘ extraordinary political incorrectness seems the most likely explanation,” he says.

“Judge’s obsessions have been consistent throughout ‘B & B,’ ‘King of the Hill,’ ‘Office Space’ and ‘Idiocracy’: IQ, class, masculinity and their complex interplay in America,” says Mr. Sailer, who often writes about such issues. “Judge’s admirable Hank Hill shows that you don’t have to have a high IQ to be a good man and valuable citizen, as Luke Wilson’s slack-off, 100-IQ Pvt. Joe Bauers learns by the end of ‘Idiocracy,’ but you need some traditional values, which Beavis and Butt-Head, whose single mothers let them be raised by MTV, never absorbed.”

Such deep themes may make “Idiocracy” a tougher sell than the white-collar workplace satire “Office Space,” whose subject was so much more universal. “This is more of a ‘Sleeper’-esque Woody Allen smart-dumb comedy,” Mr. Knowles says.

He believes that Mr. Judge’s “edgy” creativity needs a “patron.” “When Kevin Smith had crazy studio trouble with ‘Mallrats,’ he ended up taking up a shingle with [then-Miramax chief Harvey] Weinstein and has been happily making movies ever since,” he says.

“He’s one of the funniest men alive. He definitely understands how to make an audience laugh,” Mr. Knowles says. “I’m not really worried about Mike Judge.”

Mr. Sailer calls the director “one of the more interesting, insightful, and misunderstood figures in all of American popular culture.”

But as Esquire’s Brian Raftery asked, before Fox even spiked the film, “If the guy who made ‘Office Space’ has to kowtow to his … boss, what hope is there for the rest of us?”

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