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The Boston Phoenix Cool Hand Dex

Donal Logue is big in "The Tao of Steve"

By Alicia Potter

AUGUST 14, 2000:  You may be surprised to learn that there's not one character named Steve in co-writer/director Jenniphr Goodman's invigoratingly original debut. The title of her film actually refers to a philosophy of cool, a nonchalant way of looking at the world that's, well, guaranteed to get a guy laid. Steve McQueen, Hawaii Five-O's Steve McGarrett, The Six Million Dollar Man's Steve Austin: they've got it. Anyone less -- think Steve Forbes or Steve Seagal -- is a poor, pussy-whipped schmuck. Or, in the parlance of this romantic comedy, a "Stu."

The most enthusiastic proponent of the Tao is Dex (Donal Logue), an underachieving, hyper-articulate kindergarten teacher who's loosely based on co-writer Duncan North. A former big man on campus, Dex is now just, uh, big. But that doesn't diminish his Steve-ness -- in fact, when we first meet this Santa Fe slacker, at his 10-year college reunion, he's screwing a married temptress (Ayelet Kaznelson) . . . in the school library. With nary enough time to zip his fly, he then reels in a cute undergrad bartender by comparing the divergent mixings of a Long Island Iced Tea to a world-religion survey course. It's this witty charm, laced with a seductive, deviously contrived blend of Taoist self-discipline, Buddhist detachment, and Heideggerian impassivity, that makes Dex so very, very Steve. He is, as he brags to his buddies, the guy "who never tries to impress the women but always gets the girl."

That is, until he meets Syd (co-writer Greer Goodman, sister of Jenniphr). Although this lithe opera-set designer who plays drums and likes motorcycles is as hip as Ali MacGraw, Syd doesn't instantly crumple for our makeshift McQueen. As played by the utterly beguiling Goodman, she's one of the most sparkling heroines we've seen in some time: a female lead whose desirability manifests itself not in a pair of full lips or full breasts but in a full life. She's enough to make a smitten Dex let down his Kierkegaard.

Circumstance -- and some blatant manipulation on Dex's part -- fling the two together, giving Dex the chance to spout his amusing, sometimes disarmingly accurate theories on dating. Thanks to a steady run of social-gathering scenes during which someone invariably asks Dex a question like "What do you look for in a woman?", the film is pure talk. And though the dialogue is fresh, thought-provoking, and exceedingly clever, the quest to punctuate many exchanges with a Dexian maxim often lends a sitcommy ba-da-bum rhythm to the story. That's not to say that the supporting characters simply serve as straight men: Syd holds her own, and Kimo Wills as Dex's puppyish, advice-needy roommate Dave (Kimo Wills) limns a sweet, comically subtle performance as the epitome of Stu.

And despite its slight story, the film can be genuinely touching, as Syd -- whose breezy badinage appears to mask a mysterious hurt -- and Dex figure out just what they mean to each other. In a summer that's already seen such gender-stereotyping trash as Boys and Girls, this entry offers hope for the seemingly soulless genre of romantic comedy. Eschewing false sentiments and heavy-handed love themes (the original soundtrack serves up tongue-in-cheek ditties like "You're So 1988" and one that rhymes "MacGraw" and "Peckinpah"), Jenniphr Goodman reminds us of the sexual power of a weird mind, as well as the fluttery thrill of finding someone else who loves, say, Josie and the Pussycats.

Anchoring Steve is a tour de force performance by the incredibly versatile Logue, an actor still best known for his greaseball shtick as "Jimmy the Cab Driver" on MTV, though he's appeared in a slew of films, including this year's Reindeer Games and The Patriot. More than just a quip-happy provocateur, Logue's doughy Dex is a complex, humanizing portrait of a man hiding one ton of insecurity and self-loathing beneath his verbal and sexual swagger. Yet thanks to the director's insightful gaze, this seemingly amoral Don Juan upends our gender assumptions instead of reinforcing them (Tao may be the first film in which it's the dejected guy who makes a beeline for the ice-cream tub). Likewise, the script never emasculates Dex for the sake of self-righteous punishment or easy redemption. We see with honesty, affection, and intelligence what happens when one smart sluggard tries growing up instead of just out.

Love handler

Duncan North has one over Freud; he thinks he knows what women want. Overweight, underachieving, a kindergarten teacher living in a bachelor hacienda in the desert outside Santa Fe, North so impressed his friend aspiring filmmaker Jenniphr Goodman with his success with women that she immortalized him in the shrewd independent comedy The Tao of Steve. Written by Goodman, her sister Greer (who also stars), and North (thinly disguised as the film's hero Dex) himself, and directed by Goodman, Steve offers hope to the romantically challenged.

"Jenniphr and I were living together, and at first she wanted to do a documentary about me," North explains at the Nantucket Film Festival, when Tao is featured there. "She had these two friends who were particularly choosy about men, and I was interested in them. She didn't think I had much of a chance; when I did, she was taken aback. That's when I told her about the Tao of Steve."

What is the Tao of Steve? A strategy combining Eastern philosophy and Western attitude by which any guy, regardless of appearance (and North will be the first to admit he's no Brad Pitt), can make it with any woman. It's a multi-step process: you start by being desireless, then you attain excellence (a stumbling point for many) and wind up with the savoir faire of Steve McQueen. Sound unlikely? No one was more surprised than North the first time he made his discovery.

"I made it up when I was 16. It's like gravity; Newton didn't think up gravity, he discovered it. And I discovered this: if you come on strong to a woman, you're going to fuck up. My dad had given me the Tao Te Ching. I liked the part about letting things come to you, not forcing things. And when you're 16, scoring with girls is the greatest issue in the nation. But I was not successful because I was chubby, had bad skin, and wasn't very athletic.

"But I was cool enough to hang out with the cool guys -- and they were all hitting on this beautiful girl. I knew I had no chance. My friends were doing the thing that 16-year-old guys do, saying, 'You're pretty,' hitting on her, and I thought, having read the Tao Te Ching, 'These guys are forcing it. They're not letting her come to them.' And I thought, 'Fuck it. I'm not going to compete. I'm just going to tell it like it is, I'm just going to be myself.' And I got in this big argument with her, and then I left and she came out and gave me her number.

"Then it hit me; I was desireless. And because we were talking about politics, and at that time I knew more about politics than I do now, I was excellent. And because I didn't want to stay in there and see which guy was going to get the girl, I got the girl. It was like: so that's how it works. And, of course, I lost my ambition altogether and turned into a fat slacker and . . . "

. . . and a kind of Steve McQueen himself. Has North incorporated the success of The Tao of Steve into his own seduction strategy?

"I actually found myself once thinking, 'How do I let this girl know that I was part of a movie?' And just the thought of it freaked me out. In real life, it's important to know that people like you for the right reasons. If you're trying to work some sort of social leverage with a movie or money or any of that stuff, then your relationship is doomed."

So what do women, and men, really want?

"Romance is the state religion of America: [we believe] that what you do is hook up with the hottest person in the room, and when you find the other person, you'll find personal salvation. I think we have that now without the divine thing beyond that. It's just like the love partner is the final destination. I personally don't want to be a member of that religious group." -- Peter Keough

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