The Tao of Steve: How Does this Bum Score?

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:57

    The Tao of Steve directed by Jenniphr Goodman

    That most buoyant of Tanner-Berger collaborations (though today The Middle of the World might seem more prescient, La Salamandre more timely), Jonah Who Will Be 25 gave rigorous lyricism to the subject of 60s goodwill. It was equally, admirably, charming and precise about friendship: strangers connected through ideology as well as chemistry, social circumstance as much as emotional need. Jonah Who Will Be 25 is still among the loveliest of films?Jacques Denis' lecture about time resembling sausage links, Miou Miou crossing borders while singing in the back of a cab, Myriam Mezieres rhapsodizing about the lotus blossoming in a lover's forehead are all hard to forget. Yet, seen today, its tribute to bonhomie feels practically elegiac (Roger Jendly's accordion-playing before the communal wall-painting always sounded simultaneously soulful and mournful). It turns out Tanner and Berger were commemorating an epoch rather than prophesying a revolution. Jonah, conceivably, would have left Switzerland, studied at Dartmouth and become a lawyer drafting the court's dissolution of Napster.

    If that sounds bitter and cynical, check out The Tao of Steve, ostensibly a life-affirming film about casual friendships among a new generation. The film tootles along, its Peter Pan/Joe College protagonist nostalgic for campus camaraderie and freedom. It looks like an American indie attempt to do European sex colloquies?a Rohmer film without the visual beauty. What's depressing is that it romanticizes Year 2000 community without a trace of Jonah's moral or political legacy. (Rent Jonah, cuz no local curators remember it.)

    Aiming for universal truths, The Tao of Steve settles for one of the big myths of college years: that bums rack up a better sexual scorecard than the earnest romantics. Ten years after graduation, Dex (Donal Logue), now an overweight kindergarten teacher in Santa Fe, drinks beer, occasionally reads philosophy and seduces women, in that order of interest. He's a successful lothario despite his sloth?an irony that director and cowriter Jenniphr Goodman indulges without penetrating.

    Goodman has cinched the commercial formula of not looking at love too deeply. Despite using a particular focus on college-educated professionals and taking a quasi-intellectual approach to romance among young adults, Goodman makes her story more blithe than brilliant. Though a modest production, The Tao of Steve carries highly marketable hopes from Sundance (it could have been coughed up out of the jaded whale of American film culture almost as a rebuke to Jonah's idealism). This is the kind of anemic comedy critics are likely to call "witty." Mozart, Heidegger and Laotzu are not your typical American movie reference points, so The Tao of Steve sounds "smart" when, at best, it gets by on Dex's hustler charm. With the word "persevere" tattooed on his arm, Dex is self-conscious about his own character flaw. "If you can figure out how to get laid without achieving anything, then you lose your motivation altogether," he confesses. Any Hollywood hack will tell you: he's soon headed for a tumble.

    It'd be more accurate to just say that The Tao of Steve is this year's Chasing Amy (gulp!) simply for its recognizable love intrigue. It similarly refuses to challenge its intended audience. Writing with her actress-sister Greer and Duncan North (a family friend who is the acknowledged model for Dex), Goodman conforms to conventional ideas about male prerogative and female wish fulfillment. The Tao of Steve is too bemused with Dex's player/slob irony to be called feminist?besides, feminism, like Tanner and Berger's socialism, is old hat. Goodman invokes Taoism?an Eastern borrowing as fatuous as Jim Jarmusch's in Ghost Dog?to announce a new kind of romantic satisfaction. Unlike the characters in Jonah, these New Mexico postgrads borrow schools of thought to convince themselves they're all right as they are. That's the future Tanner and Berger could not foresee?privileged generations who are culturally rapacious yet indifferent to progress.

    Dex is an authentic American character, although, like the hero of Rushmore, he serves little purpose besides flattering the viewers he looks like. A beer-gut blond, he shares an adobe flat with three other bachelors and pursues different girls while keeping assignations with a young married woman. The film's title comes from Dex's advice to Dave (Kimo Wills), a kid who also wants to get laid easily. Dex explains, "'Steve' is named after Steve McGarrett, Steve Austin and Steve McQueen, the prototypical cool American male." Deriving life habit from pop culture models, Dex suggests Quentin Tarantino in Michael Moore's body. Dex is an initially unappealing comic mismatch (like a refugee from a Farrelly brothers movie), but he lights up when he's running game on a listener. His gift of gab gets him out of trouble, especially when he raps to Syd (Greer Goodman), an opera set designer, at a class reunion and makes the bumbling mistake of introducing himself to her?Syd being one of his forgotten college conquests. Years later she still can't resist him, and that's the movie's hook: Syd falls for Dex in a true-blue way; when he can't resist he drops his playboy philosophy.

    Or does he? Syd tells Dex, "Don Giovanni slept with thousands of women because he thought he wouldn't be loved by one." Duh! Dex is outwitted by his own ingenuity. The simple credo he recited to Dave ("Be Desireless. Be Excellent. Be Gone") turns out to be the route to his own romantic commitment. This irony is simplistic enough to make uninquiring college grads think the movie has proven something that's close to them and therefore profound. Because The Tao of Steve is rather flakily acted (with a visual style that suggests Sherwood Schwartz), it has a familiar sitcom blandness. I think this mostly shows a lack of imagination. Goodman foregoes typical romantic/melodramatic tone for flat "realism"?probably partly derived from the talk-heavy simplicity of early Eric Rohmer. Dex's single romantic gesture?fixing a motorcycle for Syd?provides a surprising character twist, yet unlike Rohmer (though perhaps like the New Mexico postgrads themselves) Goodman doesn't seem to believe that there's anything more at stake in Dex and Syd's actions than cohabitation-or-bust. A philosophical view is precisely what's missing from The Tao of Steve. Dex's recurring topic, "letting go of desire," is an American traducement of Laotzu. It sounds, and is, inauthentic.

    Philosophy rooted in social experience is what allowed Tanner and Berger to create their evocative, if chimerical, prophesy-child, Jonah. Dex is a credible type but he's disconnected from the selfish, overprivileged society that spawned him. Goodman does nothing in The Tao of Steve to examine the culture in which Dex thrives and preys. Whenever Goodman's passes at philosophical romanticism do work it's not because she is as probing and expressive as Lawrence Kasdan's Mumford or that she matches the humorous breadth of the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski. By having Dex believably toss about the language of philosophy (unlike Kevin Smith's prolix inanity in Chasing Amy), it just seems embarrassingly honest. In a camping tent, Syd exclaims to Dex: "You said 'solipsistic'! I love that word!" Thus an entire generation of educated fools curls in on itself.

    Dex's kindergarten scenes call up Eddie Murphy's similar, more charming classroom scenes in Boomerang, where he visited a daycare center to impress Halle Berry. A friend argued that I overlooked Boomerang in last week's consideration of Murphy's career. Okay, but Boomerang's romance (The Tao of Eddie) rates consideration this week because it shows how particular and insular is the world of The Tao of Steve. Boomerang's black dating rituals?educated, middle-class?used an approach and a platform of mores that are entirely different from Goodman's characters. Even the very odd Hav Plenty (featuring a slacker ladies' man) demonstrated how goals for romance and success always have a distinct cultural basis.

    The Tao of Steve may be a white New Mexico thing because it doesn't satisfactorily show why any mature woman would want Dex, short of self-abnegation. Although Syd matches Dex's temerity when they go camping with another couple, the film, strangely, leaves Syd's intelligence unexamined (same for the housewife Dex dallies with). Goodman hangs on to Big-Man-on-Campus mythology even though society and pop culture now profess certain romantic demands that are also economic demands. Like I said, no sensible woman would want a man like Dex, not even granting sexual potency and skill. Even a man who offers what has been called "romance with a little mystery and finesse" must, these days, display a level of achievement. Not necessarily endorsing TLC's "No Scrubs," but it's part of the modern (African-American) dating ethos that "No Scrubs" got cravenly, candidly right.

    Unfairly or not, eligible black women insist that a lover meet a socially derived standard. Boomerang took that fact for granted. It in effect countered other socially derived stereotypes. (A white lothario can be a bum, but not a black one.) Essentially, The Tao of Steve ignores these class-based issues, presuming its white characters' automatic social mobility does not influence their partner choices. Alexander Payne's Election was more honest about how desire ranges within white society. Yet Dex can be meagerly employed and still enjoy a panoply of sexual benefits and social privileges. That's because Goodman stopped thinking and went Hollywood. The Tao of Steve romanticizes the slacker as if class played no part in white romantic fantasy. It's a long way from the utopian view of Jonah. Tanner and Berger had hoped for a generation that would see through such economic distortions. The Tao of Steve unwittingly shows how the West's best and brightest have dimmed.