"Be cool, get chicks." Although that's paraphrased and boiled down, it's nonetheless the essential creed of Dex (Donal Logue), the corpulent connoisseur of carnality who lumbers through this debut feature from Jenniphr Goodman as if he's Paul Bunyan and every woman in sight is a tree. Overweight and underemployed, Dex is a man with a mission ... in bed -- or in the library, which is where we first meet him, hastily humping frumpy Beth (Ayelet Kaznelson) while her oblivious husband, Ed (John Hines), mingles outside at their 10-year college reunion. Ushered into the story by strains of Tex-Mex/zydeco-lite plus a shelf of works by all the great dead male philosophers, we linger briefly and mysteriously on one peculiar gilded volume: The Tao of Steve.
Setting aside, for now, the significance of that seemingly absurd title, it's simply a promising opening, establishing a struggle of mind and body, sacredness and profanity, sophistication and shit-kickingness that sustains the movie through its hackneyed romantic arc.
A player in an environment seemingly devoid of player-haters, Dex is John Candy as a dubious lothario, a former college party boy and brainiac in a loud, obscenely stuffed shirt. He's at once calm and crass, innocently rapping theology with a priest in a toilet stall or luring a cute, inept bartender (Dana Goodman) to his Zen den for a bit of improvisational meditation. "The better to seduce you with," he mumbles when she marvels at his library, quickly altering the line to "The better to deduce the truth with" when she overhears him. Ah, to be a scheming, libidinous fat guy.
Although he squeaks by as a part-time kindergarten teacher, Dex is hampered by his beloved bong, his slacker ideals and his motorcycle, which conks out, forcing him to share a truck with Syd (co-writer Greer Goodman), a spunky set designer who's seemingly immune to his increasingly heartfelt advances. Visiting from New York to work on an opera, Syd quickly reveals herself to be everything Dex's trysts are not: a creative adult who knows how to kick pretense (drumming to the song "You're So 1988"), think deep thoughts (ruminating, knowingly, on Don Giovanni) and simply play outside (camping with her hosts, played by David Aaron Baker and Nina Jaroslaw). Almost by accident, she becomes the catalyst of Dex's faith, prompting him into a literal exploration of Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, affording him a shot at transformation.
Fortunately for us, it's not as easy as that, for not only is Dex caught in his own rut, his rutting with Beth provokes her to ask whether he'd still want her if she weren't married. Not a situation to be proud of, especially when one is falling in love with an inspiring fourth party. And then there's his small group of disciples, obsessing over his wisdom as they while away the hours in bullish sessions of poker and Frisbee golf. In their company, the movie explains its title; Lao Tzu is retooled by way of Steve McQueen to offer adages of wisdom -- The Tao of Steve -- for slow learners like the goofball Dave (Kimo Wills).
To clear up any confusion, being a "Steve" does not mean escaping a gelatinous creature from space or driving really fast through San Francisco; it simply means being ... er ... studly.
Because the narrative's destination is awkwardly obvious and the tone occasionally melts into a sticky-sweet mess like cotton candy in the sun, the movie is most often saved by its generous helpings of clever dialogue. Imagine a focused version of Richard Linklater's Slacker in which all the amusing ramblings of confused, overeducated people actually lead to emotional stimulation. As the credits reveal, the movie is "based on a story by Duncan North; based on an idea by Duncan North; based on Duncan North" -- perhaps the third screenwriter's personal investment gives the relationships their unlikely veracity.
Although everyone is game to play here (sometimes pushing the Gen X trivia beyond good taste), the movie is mostly Logue's. Burly, bearded and secretly sullen like Jeremy Green in director Scott Bagley's elegant Pool, his Dex is a strangely likeable leading man, and, although the romance begs suspension of disbelief, it's satisfying to observe the evolution of his Tao.