Little Buddha

The Tao of Steve a one-joke comedy — and it's a bad joke at that

Opens Aug. 25

Remember how in Psycho, the first part of the movie follows Janet Leigh, letting you believe she's the film's main character, until she takes her ill-fated shower and the point of view suddenly shifts? I wished for a similar stunt while watching The Tao of Steve, a rambling indie romance about a lumbering, laid-back Lothario. I hoped that maybe the central role, Donal Logue's Dex, would be somehow removed from the picture, letting us take up with someone not quite so annoying and tedious. No such luck — and it's not like the film's other roles are particularly interesting.

Directed by Jenniphr Goodman (whose name suggests that birth certificates should be equipped with Spell-Check), The Tao of Steve's best asset is its realistic depiction of sleepy Santa Fe as a slacker haven equal to Austin and Athens, Ga. A lovely moment near the end has a slow, steel guitar version of the "Hawaii Five-O" music playing over the desert hills. Otherwise, it's a wearily predictable love story as soft-edged as Dex's own physique.

Plump Dex's life is a testament to his motto: "Doin' stuff is overrated." A part-time kindergarten teacher who enjoys Frisbee golf and taking bong-hits for breakfast, Dex proves an improbable Casanova. He attributes his luck with women to "The Tao of Steve," which takes Buddhism and pop iconography as models to project a cool unapproachability that attracts the ladies. (It's sort of like a mellow version of Frank T.J. Mackey's "Seduce and Destroy" method from Magnolia.)

But we essentially have to take the film's word for it that Dex is such a successful seducer. We never see him really in action, and his only "conquest" here is a married woman: At our first sight of Dex, they're having a quickie in a library, as he gasps, "Trust me, it's gonna be over soon." Rather than present Dex as being genuinely cool, Tao of Steve pokes fun at him as an accident-prone, overweight slob, forever knocking stuff over or getting food on his clothes.

Single Syd (Greer Goodman), a visiting set designer and drummer, seems to find him perfectly resistible, but, flying in the face of his own philosophy, Dex finds himself falling for her. The love story inspires the filmmakers to merely offer landscape shots worthy of Valentine's Day cards and moments of strained comedy. The film comes from a tightly knit creative group, having been co-written by Jenniphr Goodman, her sister Greer and Duncan North, the model for Dex's character. Perhaps they simply should have made a documentary, as the college reunions and pool party scenes find no virtue in their mundane ordinariness.

Perhaps The Tao of Steve is too much in love with Dex/Duncan, giving the character one scene after another where he talks up "The Tao of Steve" while the rest of the cast offers reaction shots that say, "What a guy!" The other roles barely share the screen with him. Dex's sidekick and acolyte Dave (Kimo Wills) may be a blandly grinning goofball, but at least he has a part to play; Dex's other buddies may as well be pieces of furniture.

When Dex tries to win Syd's sympathies by fixing her motorbike, it may be a footnote to Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Otherwise, the dialogue is larded with predictable pop culture references which bottom out when Dex explains the ultra hip "Steves" of the title. When he mentions Steve Garret, the camera swoops around the card table as the "Hawaii Five-O" theme plays. The mention of Steve McQueen yields "The Great Escape" music, etc. And when he explains that if you're not a "Steve," you're an uncool "Stu," it sounds like lines rejected from a "Seinfeld" imitator. And this is the film's comic high point.

The Tao of Steve emerged as a favorite from this year's Sundance Film Festival and has seen some positive reviews. I wished I'd seen the film that left audiences so charmed and not the low-octane, one-joke movie I did. Can there be two films out with the same name? Maybe the one I saw was meant to have the more appropriate title, The Tao of Stu. u