Rants & Raves

By Lynne Murray

I wish I could write a total valentine to this movie.  Donal Logue gave a performance with both depth and sparkle, certainly deserving of the Best Actor Award he won at the Sundance Film Festival.  The Santa Fe setting is interesting, the dialog witty and even the sound track is amusing.  It is a very positive portrayal of a fat man overcoming many obstacles to win love. 

However, this film needs a warning label.

One of the ways I survive as an older fat woman in this society is to drink in very tiny doses the poisonous messages our culture forces on us.  An entire evening of network television can easily contain enough negative messages to make me feel bad about myself for a week.  I survive by gathering together enough size-positive images, and messages to create a small capsule of personal space in which to wash the toxic hate messages out of my system.  But it is a delicate balance. 

Despite the many pleasures of The Tao of Steve, there is a scene early in the movie that is like a direct slap in the face to a fat woman.  I think it helps to know about these things in advance so that if you feel fragile you won't inflict it on yourself.

The film's hero, Dex, is a fat Don Juan. Once the smartest philosophy major on campus, he has spent the 10 years since graduation working part time as a pre-school teacher, smoking dope, playing Frisbee golf and developing strategies for seducing women based on his study of Eastern philosophy.  He calls this "the Tao of Steve."  There is no Steve in the film; Dex imagines "Steve" as an ideal of masculine cool such as Steve McQueen, etc.

In an early scene Dex's friends tease him as he flirts with their friend Syd—the film's female lead.  Despite his way with women and his own size, they say, "Dex would never date a heavy woman."  He cheerfully admits this, confessing that he is "a fattist—the worst kind of fattist—a fat fattist."  He asks Syd if she would ever date a fat man.  She says she would.  He asks her if she ever has dated a fat man.  She says she has not.  Dex retires, having made his point—and, I might add, thoroughly alienated most of the fat women in the audience.

It would seem counter-productive to insult a possible audience for this film.  But I suspect the filmmakers made a calculated decision.  From a pure plot point of view they had to answer the question of "why doesn't this fat man date fat women?"  From a dramatic point of view the reason is "Because there wouldn't be any movie if the fat man dated fat women."  For the film to have some suspense, the hero—a man considered unattractive—must be trying to succeed with women out of his league.

I think the movie handled that issue with a certain amount of grace.  Dex's prejudice and his hypocrisy are shown as part of his own self-hatred, which he is running from by racking up the conquests.  Getting the audience to identify with a fat hero is fairly heavy baggage for a film to carry.  And I do think it carries it well.

But there is a darker side to the filmmaker's decision, which I think was coldly commercial.  I base this on the fact that the marketing of the film hypes the "Cool like Steve McQueen" aspect of the hero. A major portion of the movie-going audience (even for independent films such as The Tao of Steve) consists young men from their teens to their 30s.  This is a group that is most sensitive to peer pressure, and "fat chicks" are a target of much abuse from uneasy young men who wish to bond with their buddies by attacking targets that are safe.  Fat women are the safest targets our culture offers.  Then there is the sad, but true, fact that women of all sizes in America today frequently have trouble identifying with fat women on screen.  That taboo might be the last to go.

It is a Herculean task simply to get a moviegoing audience to identify with a fat character, but The Tao of Steve manages it handily.  Donal Logue's charm and the silver-tongued dialog he is given make it hard not to like the guy.  Seeing him dancing and playing cards with his class of irrepressible (but not saccharine) pre-schoolers demonstrates his human touch.

The Tao of Steve is a movie with a certain edge.  In order to show how Dex is a role model to his male friends, they show him mentoring a young buddy—a gangly, naive kid who is hopeless with women.  Dex informs him that unlike handsome guys who can get by on looks, there is a way to succeed with women, even if you don't have looks, money or—well, really much of anything going for you.  Then he expounds on The Tao of Steve.  The point, with embellishments from Lao Tsu, is to become cool and non-attached—i.e., a "Steve" type.  As opposed to overeager and bumbling—which is characterized as being a "Stu" type. 

The point is not simply to have sex with any woman.  The real point is to succeed with women who are so more attractive than you are that it proves to yourself (and to all those other guys who are watching) that you are not the loser that you appear to be.

For Dex, the weight he has gained since college is a visible manifestation of his failure as a man.  He has to redeem himself by some sort of extraordinary effort, and winning first the affection of many (and finally the love of one) beautiful woman is a way to prove himself.  By his lights, a fat woman can no more be attractive than he himself can.  The vein of self-hatred is a strong, dark pulse in this movie, which occasionally surfaces from under the brilliant reflective surface of the dialog. 

The film was inspired by a real life model—Duncan North, a large man who taught kindergarten, and lived the life of a lothario in Santa Fe when he shared a house with filmmaker Jenniphr Goodman.  They became friends and she observed North's unexpected and continuous conquests of women as so fascinating that she was inspired to write a film on the subject.  She collaborated with her sister Greer Goodman (who plays Syd, the love interest in the film) and with North himself.  On the website devoted to the film, North remembers, "It was weird to hear people saying Dex is this, or Dex is in denial.  It's hard to negotiate your inferiority."

Anthony Lane reviewed both The Tao of Steve and The Nutty Professor in an August 7, 2000 article in The New Yorker (I referred to that article without mentioning the author in my review of The Nutty Professor because I had lost my copy—which I finally found in "the stacks," aka my living room).  Lane accused Eddie Murphy in The Klumps of self-hatred.  In Lane's mind, fat and self-hatred are inseparable.  Yet, in the accompanying review of The Tao of Steve, he was so captivated by the idea of a film focusing on philandering that he ignored as trivial, the very major theme of the emotionally crippling nature of self-hatred.  Lane simply carped at the romantic happy ending.  As he put it, "Philandering is such a crunchy subject for any movie, but you need to keep faith with the core of heartlessness."  No doubt he would have preferred something a little more down and dirty, such as Dex continuing his Don Juan career in a downwardly mobile direction—perhaps heading toward a career in major substance abuse and venereal disease.  There's a reason why so few critics publish fiction. 

It is so rare to find an on-screen hero who uses wit and irony as primary weapon in life that I do have to give The Tao of Steve tremendous praise for the maturity and restraint of some of its jokes. At one point a doctor gives Dex a lecture about quitting smoking and losing weight and he simply replies, "Well, that's easy, then." 

The film never seems tempted to pander to the myth that weight loss brings self-esteem, love, world peace and eternal life.  (Have I left anything out?)

Whatever changes Dex makes in order to become a person who could be loved by Syd, the heroine, are internal and appropriate to someone 10 years out of college and considering what to do with his life.  The Eastern philosophy content in The Tao of Steve is about the same as your average martial arts movie (without the kicking and punching, of course).  But I found it enjoyable by exercising a kind of martial art I use to watch Humphrey Bogart movies.  I hate cigarettes, having lost loved ones to them.  But in order to watch the classic films of the 1940s, where everyone smokes continuously, I simply turn off the part of my mind that wants to tell them where those cigarettes are leading.  With The Tao of Steve I simply put aside, for the moment, the fact that it had slapped me in the face.  I didn't forget it—I just postponed it, so that I could enjoy the rest of the film.  Then I wrote this review and got it out of my system. 

As a postscript on Donal Logue, as of January 2001, he premiered a television comedy series called Grounded For Life on the Fox network.  I tuned in, partly to see if the rumor that he had worn a prosthetic belly for The Tao of Steve was true.  It wasn't really possible to answer that question.  There didn't appear to be any signs that he had starved—he looked pretty much the same as in the movie, refreshingly large as life. 

The show itself was surprisingly good.  The episode I saw demonstrated more anarchy and jokes that made me laugh than I would have dared to hope.  Logue's size does not make him the target of other character's ridicule.  In fact, his energy and high spirits, even in pursuit of totally misguided goals, make him seem like a force of nature rather than a vulnerable loser. 

The fat man as irresistible force!  I like that a lot.  I hope the show can keep its writers, its edge and an audience.


© Lynne Murray