XX 1/2 "The Tao of Steve," with Donal Logue, Greer Goodman, Kimo Wills, Ayelet Kaznelson. Directed by Jenniphr Goodman, from a script by Duncan North, Greer Goodman and Jenniphr Goodman. 90 minutes. Harvard Exit. "R" - Restricted because of language and some drug use.
"The Tao of Steve," a romantic comedy about relationships, sounds great anyway.
Dex (Donal Logue), an overweight, part-time kindergarten teacher, has distilled the wisdom of the great philosophers into a sure-fire way to get women, the essence of which (I'll relay for all guys who've suddenly pricked up their ears) revolves around the Zen koan "We pursue that which retreats from us."
Fine, right? But how does a guy who is not Mel Gibson get women to pursue him? Three precepts, according to Dex.
1) Be desireless. This is especially effective for guys like Dex who are not Mel Gibson. As a result, women think, "Why isn't he interested in me? I'm such a step up for him." They become intrigued.
2) Be excellent (in her presence). Otherwise you're just some desireless schmoe in danger of becoming that modern eunuch, "the friend."
3) Be gone. And let the pursuit begin.
The titular Steve, by the way, is not a character in the film, but an ideal. He is the prototypical American male who, as one of Dex's poker-playing buddies says, "Never tries to impress women but always gets the girl." He is embodied in two TV characters, Steve Austin (the bionic one, not the Stone Cold one), and Steve McGarrett of "Hawaii Five-0." The ultimate ideal, though, is a movie star: Steve McQueen. Dex and his poker-playing buddies all want to be Steve McQueen.
All of which, as I said, sounds great. What's the problem then?
As unique as this discussion of relationships is, it still takes place within a conventional romantic comedy where, five minutes in, we pretty much know who the Love Interest will be (Syd, played by co-writer Greer Goodman, sister to first-time director Jenniphr Goodman), and how she and Dex will battle one another into a relationship.
The bigger problem, though, is Donal Logue's Dex. While the unlikelihood of his success with women is a key component of the film, I never believed in it because he never seemed to really let go of his desire, as he instructs one acolyte to do. His desire is always there, masked imperfectly into a kind of bad jokiness.
He's like a stand-up comic who's taken Philosophy 101 and preys on weaker minds. He's that ultimate movie insult: the annoying guy who's supposed to be charming.
At best he comes off with a Bill Murray rather than a Steve McQueen kind of cool. At worst, he is reminiscent of Conan O'Brien plus 150 pounds.
"The Tao of Steve" is based on a real person, Duncan North, with whom director Jenniphr Goodman and her husband roomed in Santa Fe. Goodman, an NYU film grad, was amazed by North's success with women and became intrigued by his "highly individual ideas about life and dating," according to the press kit. A possible documentary on North eventually turned into this film, which North helped write, and which was a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
But for an independent film, "Steve" is awfully conventional. There are hip conversations about relationships (Male Insanity Syndrome: the desire to "trade up" or do better than the woman you're with) but these come off like lukewarm "Seinfeld" episodes. At one point Syd even gives Dex an Elaine Benes-style "get out of here" push before the two engage in a very Seinfeldian conversation about not being "naked people": those who enjoy getting naked in front of others.
A good independent film should do more than remind us how much we miss a certain TV show. "Seinfeld" was darker, too.
"The Tao of Steve" has its light, sweet moments and occasional laugh-out-loud moments; and it's not a bad film to see with a good mixed-gender crowd and then wrangle over the whole man/woman thing at a coffee shop afterward. Just don't expect anything like enlightenment.