The Tao of Steve

a review by Shawn Riordan

For at least seventy years, the conventional wisdom has held that the
fastest way to lose your grip and turn into a bore, if you are concerned
with popular writing, is to become enthralled in Philosophy: in fiction the
Kiss of Death was guaranteed by the philosophical novel of ideas, and in
film the play of Wit and intellect was presumed to be foreclosed by the form
itself, and by the demands of popular culture. Movies that openly take up
philosophical speculation usually come across as freaks and aberrations: one
thinks of "Mindwalk" and of Louis Malle's two-hour dialogue movie, "My
Dinner with Andre." Though perhaps not so pronounced in fiction, that
prejudice against philosophy has become a firmly-entrenched dogma.

   The breezy defiance of this dogma is surely the most engaging feature of
a new movie that was just released: "THE TAO OF STEVE". Although never
departing too far from the conventions of romantic comedy, this film is
chock-full of philosophy,-- and the overarching spirit which informs the
movie is the ethical and religious meditations of Lao-tzu, poet and author
of one of the classic Taoist texts (the Tao te-Ching). In the past there may
have been Taoist movies (Renoir's "The River" and Roberto Rosellini's
"Stromboli" come to mind), but this may be the first picture where
characters actually talk ABOUT the Tao.

   Most of the talking is done by the film's protagonist, who is called
"Dex." Dex is the unreformed romantic non-hero, a fat, grungy under-achiever
and improbable Don Juan who has worked out from strands of Kierkegaard,
Lao-tzu and Zen Buddhism his own personal philosophy of non-action and right
conduct. Although sometimes put off by his sponging manners and delinquent
lifestyle his friends nevertheless like and respect Dex, for whom the hero
serves as a natural enabler, teaching them how to get girls and then how to
win their hearts. The cornerstone of Dex's world view is a
highly-articulated "art of Seduction," a near-foolproof formula for dating
and courtship which asserts that the best way to make your mark on the
opposite sex is to lose all visible desire for it. "We pursue that which
retreats from us" Dex is heard telling his followers; and like all wide-eyed
novices caught up in the vagaries of Taoist mysticism, they never quite Get
It. The essence of Dex's method is something he calls the pursuit of "Being
Steve," only the "Steve" of the title signifies not a particular man but a
model, an exemplar of masculine virtue: the unattached man who embodies a
code of honor and self-reliance and talent unique unto himself-- and who
thereby draws all women irresistibly into his magnetic orbit. (The actor
Steve McQueen and the notorious wrestler, Stonecold Steve Austin, are cited
as available reference-points.)

    The story (what there is of one, anyway) of "The Tao of Steve" merely
shows how Dex is betrayed and brought up short by his all-purpose
philosophy, or else by succumbing finally to the great American mirage of
True Love. The latter is exemplified here by a lady Designer who proves more
than equal to matching wits with the hero. "The Tao of Steve" is a typical
if somewhat offbeat romantic entertainment, much funnier than most, but one
with a difference, and that difference is philosophy-- and the difference,
of course, is everything. Apparently a small-budget first feature by a
director named Jennifer Goodman (??), the movie is shot mostly around Santa
Fe, New Mexico and environs.

    The best praise I can lay on this film is to admit that I cursed myself
for not seeing it sooner. I tell myself that had I only watched the picture
before (rather than after) venturing out on my first bona-fide date in
years, I might have brought to bear all those infallible Tao-of-Steve
principles. And THEN, of course, everything would have come out all right.

Shawn Riordan