'Idiocracy': Strong Comedy, Weak Promotion

The new film Idiocracy imagines a world 500 years into the future dumbed-down to the point of mindlessness. Film critic Elvis Mitchell says it's uproariously funny and worthy of an audience. But Twentieth Century Fox has released it with no publicity, in only seven markets.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, with Baby Boomers coming of a certain age, should TV rethink the way it ignores older viewers?

But first, the new movie Idiocracy is probably not coming to a theatre near you. It stars Luke Wilson, it's directed by Mike Judge - the creator of Beavis and Butthead - and is a satire about an America that's become so dumbed down about 500 years from now that no one knows how to grow crops or take out the garbage.

People are named after snack foods and Costco is running the law schools. The movie's gotten strong reviews, but 20th Century Fox has booked it into only seven cities. Our entertainment critic Elvis Mitchell joins us from New York. Elvis, thanks very much for being with us.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Let's tell the story. As I understand it, Luke Wilson plays a soldier who is, well, he's frozen, right? As part of an experiment?

MITCHELL: Well, yes. He's chosen because he is the most average man in the U.S. Army. And a woman has to be chosen to go into this experiment too. So a woman is chosen, a hooker, and played by Maya Rudolph.

SIMON: And the premise, I guess, is that when they are awakened 500 years from now, although they were considered to be very average, they are now the smartest people in the world because the world has become so dumbed down.

MITCHELL: That's it. And it's really hilarious and kind of shocking because in the future the world looks like a big diseased suburb. There are buildings crumbling, sort of strapped together so they won't fall apart. It's kind of hilariously horrifically ugly and you can see the influence of Mad magazine very specifically on the visual scheme of the movie.

It's very, very funny. I'm sure a lot of people talk about sort of the dystopian aspects of the film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MITCHELL: I'm sorry. I can't think about this without laughing. It's so funny.

SIMON: That's all right. Yeah.

MITCHELL: Let me tell you one thing that sort of will help you understand the movie. The biggest hit in the year 2505 is a movie called Ass. It's an ass being shown in the screen for two hours and it wins eight Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MITCHELL: The thing about that though is that that's a movie - that's a joke that plays both in the really kind of a dumb, obvious way, but there's a deeper context to it as well. And a lot of the movie works in that way. And Judge even sort of deals with that by casting in the movie Dax Shepard, who is one of the stars of Punk'd, which is one the things a lot of people say is responsible for the dumbing down of America, as well as Beavis and Butthead. People say that too.

So he understands where responsibility is and wants to sort of use that to tweak people a little bit.

SIMON: Now, of course, ordinarily we'd play a clip, but the clips are literally not available from 20th Century Fox. You know, there's no publicity - no publicity - not a Web site, there's no trailer. What possible interest would 20th Century Fox have, as you know the business, in dumping this film?

MITCHELL: If you spend $30 million to make a movie, the promotional budget, the average is 30, 35, 40 million dollars. You're basically doubling the cost, because you've got to spend money for promotion and you bill in the cost of making the prints to go around the theater.

So if you've made the film, at a certain point for them it becomes about not throwing good money after bad. And they've got a relationship, they've got a service because Mike Judge has done too well for them with King of the Hill, which is a really great television animated series.

And so they give the movie short shrift instead of none at all. And it deserves much better treatment than it gets.

SIMON: Elvis Mitchell, our entertainment critic here on WEEKEND EDITION, also host of The Treatment on KCRW and many other public radio stations. Elvis, thanks very much.

MITCHELL: Thank you, Scott.

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