Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Tao of Steve - 2000

"The Tao of Steve" - 2000
Dir. by Jenniphr Goodman - 1 hr. 27 min.

Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

In the 1990's, before the internet was the depository for all kinds of DIY filmmaking, there was a boom of talky, frequently elliptical, low-budget indie films that came from people who didn't ordinarily get to direct feature films (or at least weren't interested in big budget explody nonsense).  You could track it back to the 1980's, if you want to include Steven Soderbergh's early work, or Richard Linklater's "Slacker": that's where the unbroken string of films in that vein began.  Jenniphr Goodman's "The Tao of Steve" is at the end of that string, having been released in 2000.  It bears a lot of similarities to other films in it's vein; unconventional lead actors (in the aesthetic sense, although it's definitely part of the plot here), lots of talk about big ideas from people who aren't necessarily doing big things (or slackers, as you might otherwise know them), and tortured love stories (possibly fall-out from a decade coping with the AIDS epidemic).  This is also a very sharply-written film with excellent performances from the leads, offering a lot of easy charm and heady talk.

Dex (Donal Logue) goes to his college reunion, where one of the points of emphasis is that he's packed on more than a couple pounds over the years.  Despite this, Dex is charming, underachieving, way too smart for his own good, and has unlikely success with beautiful women.  As is explained to one of his more inexperienced friends over the course of the film, Dex owes this success to his strategy for seducing women.  A "Steve" is the epitome of cool - Steve Austin or Steve McQueen.  In channeling these Steves, his three step method works like a charm.  And that's fine, until he sees a girl that he's interested in having more than a fling with, Syd (Greer Goodman).  Or maybe Syd inadvertently Steves Dex.  Either way, they end up having to share a truck when Dex's motorcycle breaks down, and Dex has to fight an uphill battle to get Syd's interest.

At one point in this film, Dex quotes Lao Tzu to Ed (John Hines), "When a foolish man hears of the Tao, he laughs out loud."  This is an appropriate quote for any film that deals with philosophical matters: the knee-jerk reaction to any discussion of philosophical matters in the arts seems to be to dismiss it as Philosophy 101 stoned musings.  And that's fine.  If you're the sort of person prone to that reaction, skip "The Tao of Steve."  There is wall-to-wall casual discussion on this topic (and on religion, a subject frequently intertwined with philosophy).  But if that's not you, the discussions serve to offer insight into the characters in the film.  So, you know, pay attention.  It's not a coincidence that pretty much the only time that Dex shuts up in the whole film is during a discussion with Syd about "Don Giovanni" and Kierkegaard, where Syd interprets Don Giovanni as being about a man sleeping with one-thousand women because was afraid of being rejected by one.  It's a relevant observation, particular considering Dex's womanizing, particularly from the woman that Dex is pursuing.  In the context of this film, the literary and philosophical references are presented not only to offer deeper insight into the characters that we're watching, they're also there for the characters to react to when they're painfully relevant to their lives.

In terms of the story itself, it's a low-key relationship film.  It's a romantic comedy that you won't hate yourself for watching when you're done.  Dex's pursuit of Syd doesn't go as smoothly as he'd like (for spoiler reasons - the reveal sure doesn't make Dex come off like a good guy), and even after they take steps toward one another, Dex's history keeps rearing it's ugly head.  It's easy to want to root for Dex; Donal Logue gives off an easy charm (there's no other way to put it) via intelligent patter and not taking himself as seriously as you might expect a serious philosophical guy to be.  Anything less and you'd want to kill the guy by about an hour in; between his womanizing, loose grasp of time, and looser grasp of the truth, he's written nearly as a psychopathic conman.  At least that's how it would come off acted differently.  And it helps that Syd is both intelligent and not a push-over, and that Greer Goodman is able to hold her own here.  Syd is smart, capable, and unconventionally beautiful, and can hold her own in the intellectual conversations that Dex usually uses to dazzle more "weak-minded women," as he admits.  The film doesn't exactly address it, but Syd kinds pulls a Steve on Dex, which might be part of her appeal.  As he quotes, "we pursue that which retreats from us."

I really dig "The Tao of Steve."  I've watched it a number of times, and it holds up well.  If I was making a short-list of 90's indie films (yes, I know it came out in 2000, but I'm referring to the style), "Tao" would make that list every time.  The actors have chemistry, the writing's dead-on and very smart, and I even enjoy the use of the southwest as a setting - it's effective and beautiful in transition shots, and even is just presented for it's own beauty at times.  The only disappointment is that director Jenniphr Goodman seems not to have done another film in the passing years (this was her first film).  If this is the only film she ever does, it's a good one, and she's one-for-one.

4 / 5 - DVD

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