The Tao of Steve
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 25 August 2000

You were Elvis!

The Tao of Steve opens at a college reunion. Most of the attendees have returned to Santa Fe from somewhere else, but Dex (Donal Logue) has stayed put. And why should he move on? Living simply and without ambition, odd-jobbing since graduation ten years ago, Dex believes he is also happy and stress-free. Indeed, he first appears on screen while having sex with his married girlfriend (Ayelet Kaznelson) in the library stacks, pushing and sighing and grabbing, their passionate encounter framed through the shelves and in deep shadow. In the next minute, Dex is revealed in the bright fluorescent light of the men's room, checking himself in the mirror, adjusting his pink and sweaty face. And it's here that you notice the film's essential gimmick, which is that Dex is no rock-jawed, studly big-man-on-campus, but rather, a rather plain and overweight schlub. And so here it is, the film's primary zen-like referent and apparent mystery: the sexual appeal of a large body.

And here as well, is the film's point, revealed only a minute or so in to the running time: while Dex might look pleased with himself, you know -- if for no other reason than the fact that he's in a movie that opens at a class reunion -- that he'll soon be doing some reevaluation. And in case you need more convincing, Dex encounters a former classmate in the bathroom, a fellow who's now a priest. Trying to make nice, Dex -- using the stall as a kind of confessional -- chatters on about having had some interest in the clergy some time ago, and the priest expresses his surprise at such interest, given Dex's "moral turpitude." Ouch. Dex cringes and moves on to the outside world, where he can still play like he's popular and self-confident, where he can chuckle when a female friend recalls his erstwhile beauty and magnetism. "You were a king," she says. "You were Elvis!"

Though Dex appears to agree with this estimation, from here the film goes on to illustrate how empty and miserable his experience must be, and how he really wants to settle down and couple up, to mature like a "normal" man. In other words, it retreats from its ostensible premise, that the large person is attractive for his own reasons, and remakes him into a mundane romantic comedy hero. The question might be -- why does an independent film want to make this wholly traditional argument, so easily available in the latest and slickest Hollywood product? And the answer might be that The Tao of Steve -- which won a Special Jury prize at this year's Sundance Festival -- imagines itself making one of those "post-feminist" cases for reaffirming old-school gender roles, the way that, oh, Ally McBeal does. That is, the movie contends that men and women really want to play these roles, because they are "natural" and "comfortable."

This concept of comfort ends up being very important, more than enlightenment or insight or anything else more typically associated with a tao. It's the emotional and physical end Dex seeks even if he doesn't know it yet, even if he has developed this elaborate guide for living he calls the "Tao of Steve," a kind of spiritual structure -- more like a rationale, really -- for his self-indulgence and womanizing. In his "Tao," the goal is uncommitted sex, admittedly not a very new idea. But that much is plain: the steps to achieving the "Tao" are modeled on a mix of Philosophy 101 (namely, Lao-tzu, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard) and 70s cool-guy icons -- Steve McQueen, Steven Austin, Steve McGarrett. Never mind that none of these guys was especially fulfilled by his stoic, lonely "Steveness" (or that bionic man Steve Austin was so f*cked up that he was literally rebuilt by a bunch of nerdy scientists). The steps are laid out via a convenient "student" whom Dex grants a series of lessons: his irrepressibly awkward roommate Dave (Kimo Wills). Smitten by a cute girl, Dave seeks guidance. While smoking dope and drinking beer or playing cards and frisbee golf with their two other roommates, Matt (Craig D. Lafayette) and Chris (Selby Craig), Dex unveils the three principles of the men's how-to-get-some philosophy: eliminate desire, display excellence in her presence, and retreat, in order to stoke her desire.

In the midst of Dave's lessons, however, Dex has to learn a few of his own, commencing when he re-meets Syd (Greer Goodman, sister of co-writer-director Jenniphr), with whom he went to school so long ago. Now she's a professional theater set designer and amateur drummer (read: competent and self-possessed). And she's completely uninterested in Dex. In fact, she's quite specifically antipathetic toward his slacker outlook, pointing out his selfishness, unhealthy habits, and general disrespect for other people, particularly women. Their mutual friends are on the watch as well: "Don't pull a Steve on her," admonishes one. And so, Dex falls for Syd big time. It's no surprise that he likes her precisely because she doesn't like him -- in a word, she out-"Steves" him -- but it is a disappointment that the movie can't come up with a more innovative way of dealing with gendered power imbalances than simply inverting them. Girls can do it too. And so?

Still, Dex's route to domesticity and culturally-approved comfort is not exactly bump-free. Though he is momentarily frightened into considering that he should quit smoking and go on a diet (after a weekend camping trip with Syd and their happily coupled friends, during which he collapses and must be rushed to the doctor's), he never has to think twice about his very common standards of female beauty. Though he feels sensitive enough about his own body that he refuses to take his clothes off while swimming or having sex, he confesses that he would never date a fat woman: "I'm the worst kind of fattist, a fat fattist." For some reason, the object of his affection, Syd, finds this only mildly annoying (perhaps because she's thin and blond and tanned), and soon enough, the comment appears to be forgotten.

Such short-term memory is what allows Dex and his cronies, not to mention the rest of the culture, to cook up and subscribe to ideologies like the "Tao of Steve." Rather than grasping or even asking questions about what this presumed ethos might represent in a larger context, the characters in The Tao of Steve see it as a stage, not as part of who they are. Dex renounces Steveness during a climactic moment, telling Dave that he shouldn't emulate him or the Steves, that he should find himself, or his own values, or something equally predictable: "I've been trying to turn you into me, and I'm not even sure that I want to be me anymore." Though the movie might have offered some insight into what that means -- what it means to be Dex, a man struggling to accommodate impossible criteria for masculinity and potency -- it opts for what's comfortable. Basic expectations of gender remain intact and difficult questions about sexuality unasked. And to be Elvis, somehow, still looks like a good idea.

Click here to read Loey Lockerby's interview.

Directed by:
Jenniphr Goodman

Donal Logue
Greer Goodman
Kimo Wills
Ayelet Kaznelson

Written by:
Duncan North
Greer Goodman




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