THERE'S BEEN AN explosion in the production of independent films of late, spurred in part by the success of such early mid-'90s breakouts as Spanking the Monkey and Clerks, and most neatly capitalized on by the late-'90s runaway hit Blair Witch Project. Unfortunately, whereas those films made a virtue of their low budgets by creating interesting stories or unusual situations that required no special effects, of late the "independent film" has become just another formula, generally a story about male friends coming to terms with adulthood (à la Clerks, only without the laughs), or a simple romance of the standard boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl-back recipe, as in Spanking the Monkey (although in that movie the girl was the boy's mother, which added just the twist needed to set it apart).
Tao of Steve is a combination of both these plots, and it plays them fairly well, creating a charming divertissement. Nonetheless, nothing distinguishes it from the roughly 417 million other movies about people's feelings. It's not that it's a bad film, it just seems an act of hubris to produce yet another movie about a guy learning that he's not a kid anymore, and it's that one special woman, the one who doesn't immediately succumb to his charms, who lights the way for him. I mean, you know, "Seen it!"
The story, such as it is, centers on Dex, who was previously a lady's man of slender build and bulging vocabulary. Since college, Dex has put on about 80 pounds, gotten a go-nowhere job, and yet retained his love of marijuana and laziness. Also, he still manages to score regularly, using what he calls "The Tao of Steve," which is basically the standard B.S. about playing it cool around women.
The women who fall for Dex's charm are given little screen time and no personality. The script and direction basically treat them like whores, though Dex is not quite as shallow as the film is on this point. This kind of dopey, old-fashioned sexism really brings the movie down, and that's not just a moral complaint: Aesthetically, the film suffers in the two-dimensional portrayal of Dex's conquests.
Of course, Dex finally meets a woman who won't jump into bed with him immediately, and he falls madly in love with her. It's not just that Dex thinks she must be better than the women he's sleeping with; the movie portrays her as better, gives her more character and more personality, and seems to throw moral weight behind her. It's kind of like watching a film based on the best-selling self-help/romance book The Rules.
The bumbling aspects of the story are matched by some lackluster camera work. There are some beautiful shots of the New Mexico deserts, but the close-ups and conversations are shot rather clumsily, with the camera moving back and forth between two interlocutors as though it were a pan-and-scan version made from a wide-screen film. In general, the cinematography is not "boffo."
Still, I can't say I hated the film. The character of Dex, while a bit trite, is extremely likable, thanks in large part to the performance of Donal Logue, who is just, well, really likable.
His love interest, Syd, is not so good. She's played by one of the film's writers, Greer Goodman (she adapted a story by Duncan North, who served as the model for the character Dex). While she's given loads of extraneous, positive characteristics (she's a set designer for major opera companies, she plays drums in a rock band, she rides a cool motorcycle), she somehow fails to be compelling, because she always seems to be on some kind of moral high-horse.
Also, you constantly get the feeling that, yes, she's the scriptwriter, like she was thinking "I have to give me more lines; I have to give me a cool job; I have to give me the part of the woman who's so hot she undoes Dex's Casanova instincts."
While the story is trite, the script is often very funny, with a number of good one-liners and some fun references to Heidegger and Lao Tze (Dex's pick-up routines run to the charmingly pretentious). Still, I get the feeling that the people making this film thought about its positive qualities in negative terms. It's not one of those stupid, Hollywood blockbusters. It's not just another movie about pretty people. It doesn't rely on toilet humor and gross-out comedy for its laughs. What critic wouldn't say, "This is a refreshing change of pace from the pablum that the big studios are putting out"?
Well, I guess it is a nice change of pace from the last Will Smith/Farrelly Brothers outer-space, serial-killer, high-tech western, but then again just reading a book would be a nice change of pace from that.
Nonetheless, if you haven't seen the 417 million other movies that tackle the same topic, then I think Tao of Steve will probably be a charmer. Perhaps its tagline should read "excellent viewing for the unjaded and underexposed."