Film Reviews

Turn of the Screwball

"Be cool, get chicks." While that's paraphrased and boiled down, it's nonetheless the essential creed of Dex (Donal Logue), the corpulent connoisseur of carnality who lumbers through this debut feature from Jenniphr Goodman as if he were Paul Bunyan and every woman in sight were a tree. Overweight and underemployed, Dex is a man with a mission in bed. Or in the library, which is where we first meet him, hastily humping frumpy Beth (Ayelet Kaznelson) while her oblivious husband, Ed (John Hines), mingles outside at their ten-year college reunion. Ushered into the story by strains of Tex-Mex/zydeco lite plus a shelf of works by all the great dead male philosophers, we linger briefly and mysteriously upon one peculiar, gilded volume: The Tao of Steve.

Setting aside, for now, the significance of that seemingly absurd title, it's simply a promising opening, establishing a struggle of mind and body, sacredness and profanity, sophistication and shit-kickingness, that sustains the movie through its hackneyed romantic arc. A player in a suburban Santa Fe environment seemingly devoid of player-haters, Dex is John Candy as a dubious lothario, a former college party boy and brainiac in a loud, obscenely stuffed shirt. (Asked if he has gained a few pounds since graduation, he replies, "Yeah, one or two hundred.") He's at once calm and crass, innocently rapping theology with a priest in a toilet stall, or luring a cute, inept bartender to his Zen den for a bit of improvisational meditation. "The better to seduce you with," he mumbles when she marvels at his library, quickly altering the line to "The better to deduce the truth with" when she overhears him. Ah, to be a scheming, libidinous fat guy.

Although he squeaks by as a part-time kindergarten teacher (and a spiteful one at that; Robin Williams, please take note: This is how one plays "cute" without costing us our lunches), Dex is hampered by his beloved bong, his slacker ideals ("Doing stuff is overrated," he explains. "Hitler did a lot of stuff, but don't we wish he would have just stayed home and gotten stoned?") and his motorcycle, which conks out, forcing him to share a truck with Syd (co-writer Greer Goodman), a spunky set designer who's seemingly immune to his increasingly heartfelt advances. Visiting from New York to work on an opera, Syd quickly reveals herself to be everything Dex's trysts are not: a creative adult who knows how to kick pretense, think deep thoughts (ruminating, knowingly, upon Don Giovanni) and simply play outside (camping with her hosts, played by David Aaron Baker and Nina Jaroslaw). Almost by accident, she becomes the catalyst of Dex's faith, prompting him into a literal exploration of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, and affording him a shot at transformation.

Fortunately for us, it's not as easy as that, for not only is Dex caught in his own rut, his rutting with Beth provokes her to ask if he'd still want her if she weren't married. Not a situation to be proud of, especially when one is falling in love with an inspiring fourth party. And then there's his small group of disciples, obsessing over his wisdom as they while away the hours in bull sessions of poker and Frisbee golf. In their company, the movie explains its title, as Lao Tzu is retooled via Steve McQueen to offer adages of wisdom -- The Tao of Steve -- for slow learners like the goofball Dave (Kimo Wills). To clear up any confusion, being a "Steve" does not mean escaping a gelatinous creature from space, or driving really fast through San Francisco, but simply being er studly.

Since the narrative's destination is awkwardly obvious, and the tone occasionally melts into a sticky-sweet mess like cotton candy in the sun, the movie is most often saved by its generous helpings of clever dialogue. Imagine a focused version of Richard Linklater's Slacker, in which all the amusing ramblings of confused, overeducated people actually lead to emotional stimulation. (Prompting one of the movie's several guffaws, Dex implores Syd: "Am I supposed to remain celibate while I bask in the warming glow of your annihilating contempt?") As the credits reveal, the film is "based on a story by Duncan North; based on an idea by Duncan North; based on Duncan North." Perhaps the third screenwriter's personal investment gives the relationships their unlikely veracity.

Although everyone is game to play here (sometimes pushing the Gen-X trivia beyond good taste), the movie is mostly Logue's. Burly, bearded and secretly sullen like Jeremy Green in director Scott Bagley's elegant Pool, his Dex is a strangely likable leading man, and while the romance strains our willing suspension of disbelief, it's satisfying to observe the evolution of his Tao. Now let's see what Jenniphr Goodman offers as a follow-up perhaps The Te of Raquel

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Gregory Weinkauf