The Zen of Dating

 

Dex, the main character in "The Tao of Steve," is an unlikely lothario, to put it mildly. He is a fat, 32-year-old part-time kindergarten teacher who shares a house in Santa Fe with three slacker roommates and a dog that lives to have whipped cream shot into his mouth from the can. Dex's own ambitions rarely exceed lounging around in a bathrobe, smoking dope, and spouting Zen platitudes. And yes, meeting the ladies.

As it turns out, the ladies find Dex's wit and easy manner, carried off perfectly by Donal Logue, simply irresistible. Over the course of this charming romantic comedy, Dex, despite all his shortcomings, manages to score with a frequency and ease that would make James Bond think he woke up in some inverted parallel universe.

The movie begins at Dex's college reunion, where he has sex with an old girlfriend in the library and then escorts her back to her handsome, well-dressed husband. As he walks through the crowd, Dex overhears women, many of them his former conquests, commenting on how much the "smartest guy on campus" has let himself go. He's unfazed. When one woman says to his face, "You were Elvis!" he calmly replies, "Well, now I'm fat Elvis." He orders a drink at the bar, and soon the bartender, a comely coed, falls under his glib spell.

Dex knows what he's got, and he's the first to admit it ain't looks. "I mean, look at me!" he tells his much thinner and far lonelier friends who are always tapping him for dating advice. His secret? He has the right philosophy of life and love, or at least lust--a personal Weltanschauung he cobbled together with threads from Lao-tzu, Heidegger, and Marx (Groucho, that is). He calls his system the Tao of Steve-"Steve" being the name that represents for him all that is cool, confident, and unruffled, no matter what life may bring. The examples he cites are Steve McGarrett, Steve Austin, and the all-time king of laid-back Steves, Mr. McQueen.

It's a philosophy Dex began formulating back in Phil 101, where he cut through the beer fog long enough to glean a vocabulary (a decade after college his "favorite word" is still "solipsistic") and a reading list with which to impress chicks and rationalize his life as a confirmed underachiever. "Slacker detachment is a Buddhist virtue," he argues in one scene. In another, he muses: "Hitler did a lot, and don't we all wish he'd stayed home and got stoned?"

As a theory of seduction, the Tao of Steve boils down to three rules:


  • Eliminate your desire. ("Woman can smell desperation," he explains. "It's like a Zen koan. You have a better chance of getting laid if you don't try.")
  • Do something excellent to prove your sexual worthiness. (Whether it's playing Frisbee golf or working with kids, with whom Dex is always a big hit.)
  • Retreat. ("We pursue that which resists us.")

    Dex's Don Juan formula seems foolproof until he falls for Cyd (Greer Goodman), a smart, attractive set designer who's in town for a few weeks to work on the Santa Fe Opera's production of--what else?--Don Giovanni. Dex likes Cyd so much--a violation of rule one-that he begins to act like a "Stu," the opposite of a Steve, best exemplified by uncool bumblers such as Jughead, Barney Fife, and Gomer Pyle. Cyd likes Dex, too, though she's deeply hurt that he doesn't remember her or the fling they had in college. Still, she recognizes him for the person he really is--a vulnerable guy who's just trying to be the best person he can be. It's the Steve shtick she could do without, so she keeps her distance.

    Written by director Jenniphr Goodman, her sister Greer (Cyd), and their friend Duncan North, upon whose life Dex is based, "The Tao of Steve" is genial, with crisp banter that rivals the Coen brothers, minus the violence and bizarre plot twists. Donal Logue makes slobby Dex's appeal to women perfectly believable: a tall order that won Logue a best performance award at this year's Sundance.

    Does this film have anything to do with Buddhism? Or, put another way, was Lao-tzu a lady-killer? "The Tao of Steve" spends more time spoofing the casual adaptation of Eastern philosophy than it does teaching Zen enlightenment. If Buddhism makes an appearance here, it's in Dex's realization that Steve--the ideal of his philosophy--has gotten in the way of his truly becoming Dex. But while not many movie characters these days can be found reading Elaine Pagels' "The Gnostic Gospels" or keeping a copy of "God: A Biography" by the bed, "The Tao of Steve" is still primarily a movie about a guy who finds a way to commit. "Don Giovanni slept with 1,000 women," Dex admits, "because he was afraid he wouldn't be loved by one."

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