‘Tao of Steve’ clever but conventional
By Patrick Reed
Strange as it may seem, it has been almost a decade since Richard Linklater’s Slacker ambled out of Austin, Texas in 1991 to become a signpost of early-nineties culture. Certainly, as those “alternative daze” recede ever further into nostalgia, the most engaging aspect of the subculture as first documented by Linklater – the realization that these lazy wanderers and misfits were actual people, and could be honest-to-God intelligent and idiosyncratic people at that – has long been overrun and calcified into an Ethan Hawke-esque “Gen X” caricature by countless savvy marketers and other regurgitationists. While Linklater and other up-and-comers from the era have either adapted to the mainstream grind or receded into the bongwater bog of the do-it-yourself underground, it has taken a new, modestly-budgeted, word-of-mouth film, The Tao of Steve, to resurrect and flesh out the slacker stereotype just in time for a ten-year reunion.
Suitably, The Tao of Steve begins at a college reunion in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the thirtysomething attendees marvel at how much weight Dex (Donal Logue), a former philosophy major and campus Casanova, has gained in the interim. Oblivious to the snickers, the gregarious and slovenly Dex is too busy sloshing his Long Island iced tea, hitting on the young co-ed working the bar, and slipping away for a quickie in the library with a now-married former lover to notice how nearly everyone else at the reunion has moved beyond his carpe diem outlook on romance and settled down. Meeting up with an attractive former classmate named Syd (Greer Goodman) whom he’s completely forgotten about, Dex is momentarily taken aback by her interest in him, and as the reunion ends he resolves to try to include her in his ongoing rotation of seductions.
Dex, who works part-time as a teacher’s assistant in a preschool and spends the rest of his time smoking pot, chowing down, tossing Frisbees, and advocating apathy as the ultimate virtue, is quite a character (based, the credits reveal, on co-screenwriter Duncan North, who appears in a brief cameo). Expressing an adherence to Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching and other sages from Heidegger to Thomas Aquinas, Dex feels it is his duty to pontificate endlessly on the metaphysics of attracting women, with the aim of forestalling emotional dependence for as long as possible. Most of Dex’s buddies see his worldview for the existentialist smokescreen that conventional, marriage-minded society deems it to be, but one of them, a goofy younger guy named Dave (Kimo Wills) becomes so obsessed with finding a mate that he agrees to let Dex tutor him in the ways of acquiring love from indifferent females.
Thereafter, the bulk of the film contrasts Dex’s philosophy of cool – dubbed the “Tao of Steve” in homage to 1960s icon Steve McQueen – with his attempts to woo Syd as they carpool for several weeks, and the contradiction between Dex’s teachings and his real desires soon becomes apparent.
Despite The Tao of Steve’s independent-film cachet, the plot is really quite conventional, following along the lines of many romance genre pictures (think last spring’s High Fidelity, for example) in its contrast between the male’s fear of commitment and the female’s quest for stability. Indeed, several scenes are clichéd; there’s a camping interlude where Dex’s tent falls down and he has to snuggle up with Syd, an adultery scene where Dex barely escapes from being discovered by jumping out the window, too many cute reaction shots of pets and giddy children, etc. What redeems The Tao of Steve, and makes it worth watching, are the dialogue, direction, and acting.
Despite succumbing to a few by-now-routine odes to 1970s popular culture, the majority of the wordplay is clever and humorous, and the on-location vibe (shot in Santa Fe by first-time director Jenniphr Goodman) adds to Tao’s low-key, leisurely charm. Above all, though, this story is a showcase for one actor, and after a string of supporting roles in big-budget movies, Donal Logue has finally landed a role deserving of his comic talents. Ever since creating one of MTV’s best-ever pitchmen as the sweaty, thickly-bespectacled Jimmy the Cabdriver during the mid-nineties, Logue has been confined by image-conscious Hollywood to one-dimensional parts as exemplified in Blade (1998), where he hammed vigorously as a vampire sliced up by Wesley Snipes. Logue’s portrayal of Dex as a stubborn-yet-affable slacker facing domesticity is the best thing about The Tao of Steve as it presents a more nuanced view of Linklater’s conceptual protagonist, and then questions Dex’s arrested-development philosophy of staying perpetually disconnected from the challenging, albeit occasionally rewarding, rigors of romantic relations.