[box cover]

Dude, Where's My Car?

Of the many films that arrive year after year, true students of cinema always remain on the lookout for that rare gem — the small masterpiece that rewards the spectator with each repeated viewing, offering up tantalizing clues as to the auteur's intent, but never willing to give away all of its labyrinthine secrets. Such a film is Danny Leiner's neo-realist masterpiece Dude, Where's My Car? (2000), which spans the thematic range from James Joyce's Ulysses to Christopher Nolan's Memento, while deftly offering both the sparseness of Bergman's The Seventh Seal and the bold sweep of a classic Howard Hawks screwball comedy. That Leiner — a true cineaste among his peers — has created a postmodernist conundrum of suburban alienation and stifled white-male rage is clear after just two or three sittings:

  • Utilizing the framework of a Campbellian "Hero's Quest," our heroes — Jungian in their universality, but appropriate for Leiner's subtle mien — are Jesse (Ashton Kutcher) and Chester (Seann William Scott), who awake one morning after a night of libations (cleverly suggesting the incomprehensible "nightmaze" of Joyce's Finnegans Wake) to discover that they cannot remember what occurred the previous evening. Fate pays them a second unwelcome favor when it is learned that Jesse's car is missing — indeed, his entire existence, his method and mode of transport (or, in a strict Freudian sense, his male capacity — his phallus.)
  • Learning that they probably trashed the home of their twin girlfriends Wanda and Wilma (Jennifer Garner, Marla Sokoloff), Jesse and Chester must find a way to repair the breach, which they plan to do by offering anniversary gifts, for which they are promised "special treats" by the girls (at which point scenarist Philip Stark's subtle web of puzzles begins to unfold: What are the "special treats?" What is the meaning of the word "treat"? Jesse suspects it will be coitus, but the audience is led to believe this will be wrong. Our heroes' only conclusion is another one-word code, a trope of identification that only they share: "Shibby" — which may suggest a Faulknerian slave-name, and thus the spiritual enslavement of Jesse and Chester.)
  • After a visit to a prophet/wise man figure (possibly invoking Fielding's "fool on the hill" in his equally picaresque Tom Jones), Dude, Where's My Car? takes a liberal turn into absurdist theater as our heroes attempt to order Chinese food, only to receive the constant, Zen-like inquiry "And then?" from the drive-through speaker, which nearly drives Jesse to madness (to suggest this resembles the theater of Beckett may be accurate, but also pedantic; rather, examine Sartre's No Exit, or the absurdist antiplays of Ionesco, esp. in The Leader, with its wry investigation of identity and power. Indeed, in Dude, Where's My Car?, is Hell other people, or just Jesse and Chester? Who is the leader? Stark writes the scene with a light touch — perhaps a hundred viewings cannot reveal the ultimate truths of his beguiling métier.)
  • In another form of Joycean "nightmaze," Jesse and Chester soon retrace their steps to the Kit Kat Club, a local striptease establishment. But its promises of hidden truths are vague and ultimately dissatisfying; Jesse soon learns that "Tania," a stripper, is actually a transvestite — a point confirmed by glimpsing the outline of Tania's penis through silk underwear. Jesse is horrified — as is the viewer — but probably not so much from an overt suggestion of homosexuality as from his sense of castration since his car vanished. Tania frightens Jesse, but Tania also possesses what Jesse (psychologically) does not. It's a brief, ironic moment that reminds us of Scott Fitzgerald's early short stories, but with a brutal twist more akin to Faulkner's castration-obsessions in The Sound and the Fury and the Quentin/Caddy gender-reversal dynamic. (Also cf. Jake/Brett in Hemingway's Sun Also Rises, or Leo and Molly Bloom in Joyce's Ulysses).
  • Still trying to determine the fate of Jesse's car, our heroes discover that they are tattooed, and that each tattoo contains a message (the cryptic, cyclical "DUDE" and "SWEET"). Perhaps in this moment more than any other does Dude, Where's My Car? resemble the neo-noir masterpiece Memento, with its tale of clues rendered in human flesh (although the luxury sports sedan Jesse and Chester acquire also invokes a Memento-like event. As in Memento, can we ever really know what these objects and messages mean?) Chester's obsession with a Rubik's Cube adds another layer of meaning in this scene as well.
  • Learning that a spacebound religious cult has been searching for a "Continuum Transfunctioner," Jesse and Chester soon wind up in the middle of a conspiracy that includes the cult, a group of leather-clad hot chicks, and a bunch of local toughs. As the plot progresses, we are introduced to a kaleidoscope, which both interests Chester immensely and also illustrates the infinite vastness of this tale, which has expanded fivefold and threatens to spin out of control in an existential riddle that questions Truth, Beauty, and Sanity.
  • A visit to a school for the blind — where Wanda and Wilma volunteer — seems an obvious allegory (our heroes, as mythical searchers/wanderers, are blind themselves), but it would be a mistake to underestimate Stark's skill at complex literary puzzles. Yes, it is a world of blindness for all, but this scene is intrinsically linked to a following one where Jesse and Chester are attacked by ostriches. All are blind in this netherworld of chaos and despair, but our central heroes also have their heads figuratively buried within th' Earth itself. It is an indirect but effective metaphor, and completely apt for a story that primarily concerns the angst of the postmodern struggle.
  • The final confrontation — while breathtaking in its ability to render primal fear in an economy of space (the homage to Munsch's "The Scream" is daring in its clarity) — also offers up Jesse and Chester's greatest nightmare in the form of Woman. It is their task to overcome such an obstacle, which they do. But the heroic parable is tempered by issues the film does not explicitly address: Has Jesse, automobile restored to him, come to terms with his phallic obsessions? Or will his life be one of psychic/emotional dependency? Will Chester learn that puzzles and games are an existentialist dead-end? That they offer a tantalizing glimpse of Karmic Truth but never reveal it? Will either learn that their greatest obstacle, Woman, is a beast that neither can comprehend nor tame? (cf. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)

All of this is true — or Dude, Where's My Car? is nothing more than the most puerile teen comedy that has ever come out of the dark abyss of Hollywood's sinister marketing leviathan, offering the viewer little more than a tedious 82 minutes of unfunny jokes and lame visual gags, with precisely one moment that is worth a slight chuckle. A wart not only on the comedy genre and the DVD format, but in fact the entire history of moving pictures. But maybe it's a little better if you watch it stoned. Fox's DVD release of Dude, Where's My Car? features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with DD 5.1 audio. Extras include a commentary with Leiner, Kuthcher, and Scott, seven extended scenes, a featurette, a music video by Grand Theft Audio, and a trailer and TV spots. Keep-case.

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