The Tao of Steve by Jenniphr Goodman is a likeable little slacker film set in (or near) Santa Fe, but a little too top-heavy with talk — in particular philosophical talk — as many indy first films by would-be intellectuals tend to be. We mustn’t be too hard on them. And the idea is a good one. The movie purports to be a kind of essay on cool. “Steve” is the generic term for “the prototypical cool American male” — the man who lives by “his own code of honor,” who “never tries to impress the woman, but he always gets the girl.” His exemplars are said to include the actors Steve McGarrett, Steve Austin and Steve McQueen. Yet the philosopher who has formulated the Tao of Steve from his consumption of pop culture doesn’t look anything like any of these Steves. He is a fat kindergarten teacher called Dex (Donal Logue) who teaches his insights to his friends and roommates as a way to pick up girls.
These insights are as follows. The first rule of Steve is the elimination of desire. Or as goofy Dave (Kimo Wills), Dex’s acolyte, puts it, “Are you saying I have a better chance to get laid if I don’t want to?” The second rule of Steve is to do something excellent in the presence of the woman you would seduce. Then, after you’ve eliminated your desire and been excellent in her presence, the third rule of Steve is to retreat. “We pursue that which retreats from us,” Dex teaches. Or, to make the concept more understandable to Dave, Dex tells him that “Women want to have sex fifteen minutes after us, so if you can hold out for twenty, she’ll be chasing you for five.”
“I don’t think I can hold out that long,” says Dave.
But even in the form it takes on Dave’s cheat-sheet — “Be desireless, be excellent and be gone” — the system seems to work, at least if we go by Dex’s boasting. Certainly there are a lot of old girlfriends knocking around, and we know that he is getting a pretty steady supply of sexual favors from Beth (Ayelet Kaznelson) the wife of a friend. But then into his life comes Syd (Greer Goodman) and suddenly his amorous intentions become complicated by a desire to do more than just seduce women.
This film is to its audience as Dex is to girls: it tries to seduce us with words. “He words me, girls,” as Cleopatra says of Caesar’s insincere attentions in Antony and Cleopatra. The words’ pedigree (Kierkegaard, Heidegger, oriental philosophy) are meant to suggest depth of insight, wisdom, learning and intelligence. These are all things that chicks like, as Dex has figured out, but here they are rarely more than a show. One point where the words promise to become something more comes when Dex and Syd discuss Kierkegaard’s view of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Syd makes the point that the philosopher’s obsession with the character of the Don is all bound up with his own unwillingness to make the “leap of faith” in love that he prescribed in religion. In this he was himself like Don Giovanni, who “slept with thousands of women because he was afraid he wouldn’t be loved by one.”
It’s an interesting idea, but what is the point of introducing it into the film if Dex’s own leap of faith amounts to nothing more — nothing more that we see on screen, anyway — than realizing he likes this girl more than the rest and so pursuing her to the exclusion of the others? The film itself never really takes us beyond this point, and the superficialities of seduction to the seriousness of real love, which it can only hint at. This is because it wants to have it both ways. It wants to take a detached and humorous and — dare we say it? — cool approach to the whole “cool” phenomenon while being 200 proof cool itself.
Thus Dex’s final revelation that his own cool has been melted by the fire of real love is only implied, just as the lover’s “leap of faith,” which is (one could say) the antithesis of cool, is either implied or simply left hanging. It can’t bear the seriousness of pursuing its own idea to the end. This is too bad because there are a lot of good jokes and both Dex and Syd are charming, witty, likeable people, who sometimes do say seriously intelligent things. I especially liked the bit where Dex asks a happily married couple: “Do you guys ever wonder if your marriage is an obstacle to achieving enlightenment?”
“Do you ever wonder if your philosophy is an obstacle to your having a life?” returns the husband.
But Dex is serious. “Romantic love,” he tells them, “is like the state religion of America,” and to prove it he asks: “What’s more important to you, your relationship with God or with each other?” They look at each other uneasily. “Who snuggles up to God?” asks Dex. The only times we approach him at all are at moments of “gratitude or grovelling. . .No one ever says, ‘How was your day, God?’” No one, that is, but Dex. “I do all the time.”
Just for a moment we sense where the film might have been going, but there is no dramatic future in that. Likewise, when Dex gives Dave the benefit of his latest, Syd-inspired insight into the Tao of Steve, telling him that it “isn’t about picking up lots of women,” we want to see a real moral development taking place. No, says Dex, “It’s about being the best person you can be — and I’m not.” But the sloppiness of the expression mirrors the sloppiness of the idea. In fact, it is about picking up lots of women, among other things. The whole film has been directed precisely to making that point, and it is too late to try to turn it around now. If Dex wants to get into the territory of being the best person he can be, he’s going to need a whole ‘nother Tao, and it’s never made clear that he is up to finding one.