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Dex is a fine
example of the genus Bohemius Americanus. 250 lbs. of spiky intelligence and unfettered
libido, Dex is both brilliant and lazy. He
commands sufficient erudition to rationalize his "moral turpitude" with quotes
from Kierkegaard and Lao-Tse, yet he's unwilling to push himself to achieve anything real. "Doing stuff," he says, "is
overrated." All he wants is a simple
life: a bong hit for breakfast, plenty of beer in the refrigerator and a steady stream of
undemanding women to share his bed.
Jenniphr Goodman's The Tao of Steve is the best movie about slacking since The Mother and the Whore. This dazzling debut (co-written by Goodman, Duncan North and Greer Goodman) is also the best romantic comedy in years, largely because it trusts the audience enough to push us a little. Most screen romances work a familiar formula: two beautiful, yet lonely, characters meet cute. They hate each other on sight and trade barbed one-liners for eighty-nine minutes, until they finally realize what we've known all along and fall into each other's arms. Goodman short circuits these expectations by encouraging us to feel ambivalent towards Dex. She never softens his bad behavior or shies away from showing its consequences for the women in his life. The film earns our emotional investment in his happiness by resisting the urge to take the easy route of rendering him cutely inoffensive.
We meet Dex at his tenth college reunion. Back in the day, he was Elvis: women line up now to compare notes from their nights with the arrogant, brainy heartbreaker. 100 lbs. later, he still has the touch, effortlessly wooing an undergrad minutes after zipping himself up from an assignation with a married friend's wife.
He attributes his success with women to "The Tao of Steve," a private philosophy that melds Buddhist discipline with Steve McQueen's detached cool. In fact, he scores because he's charming. As played by Donal Logue, Dex is that rarest of movie characters: a smart, funny, irascible rogue who actually displays intelligence and charm onscreen. We never have to take it on faith that he's appealing.
For all his rationalizing talk of having freed himself from desire, we see that his idle drifting is beginning to take its toll on his self-respect. His vague sense of purposelessness comes into focus when he meets Syd (co-scenarist Greer Goodman), a gorgeous college acquaintance he has somehow managed to forget in the ensuing ten years. He makes a play for her, but Syd's not impressed by Dex's glib patter. She has his number: she's read all the same books he has, and understands that he uses his knowledge of theology and philosophy to justify his lethargy and impress his poker buddies.
Syd leaves him flustered. His shtick depends on him being too smart for the room, self-deprecatingly playing up his wasted potential for sympathy. Syd's too astute and self-possessed to fall for that. The rejection inspires him: he very quickly realizes that he's met the woman of his dreams, and that he's not worthy of her. It's a delicious device. Instead of throwing plot contrivances in the path of the couple, The Tao of Steve makes Dex's own immaturity and posturing the obstacle to their relationship. This generates enormous tension because the stakes are real. Dex is dug so deep into his rut that he can fail at any moment in his attempts to climb out. And Syd's no pushover. From scene to scene, we don't know how she'll react to Dex's attempts to grow up.
The film is occasionally overdetermined, making its points too explicitly. Several supporting characters serve a little too obviously as rhetorical devices, there to help define the issues. There's a happily married couple to provide an example of the stability Dex lacks, for instance, as well as a sweet puppydog of a kid (Kimo Wills in a charming performance) who's making a study of the Tao of Steve. It's a testament to Goodman's canny direction that the scenes that are most schematic are often the funniest. Giving Dex a part time job as a preschool teacher may be tugging too easily on our sympathies, but Logue overwhelms any objections to these scenes with the boisterous delight he takes in the kids.
The Tao of Steve is truly regional filmmaking. Made in Santa Fe, New Mexico, it doesn't just milk the town for its quaint beauty. It couldn't have been made anywhere else: it captures Santa Fe's relaxed pace and the warm, turquoise glow of the town in every shot.
The Tao of Steve is a wonderful antidote to a summer of pandering excess. Any film that assumes an intelligent audience would be welcome; a film that manages to be both this smart and this funny is cause for celebration.
- Gary Mairs