A charmingly comic character piece about an overweight man with an uncanny ability to seduce women, “The Tao of Steve” takes the first part of its title from the Eastern notion of doing something in a way that’s harmonious with nature, with the second part serving as homage to Mr. Cool, Steve McQueen. This perfectly agreeable and straightforward picture sparks a goodly number of laughs as it recounts a romance that gives its hero rather more than he bargained for. Santa Fe-lensed production from Gotham-based Good Machine has some commercial possibilities based on its premise and an offbeat and beguiling lead performance by Donal Logue.
First-time helmer Jenniphr Goodman, a Santa Fe native who directed a couple of prize-winning shorts at NYU, was inspired by a local friend, Duncan North, a portly fellow whose success rate with women she found amazing. Goodman prodded North into revealing his secrets and, finally, into collaborating on the script with her and her sister, who plays the femme lead.
Story as it evolved doesn’t chronicle the countless conquests of a Don Juan, but is expressive of his attitudes toward life in general and women in particular, and is rooted as much in what he says as in what he does. Dex’s reputation is established in the first scene at a 10-year class reunion, where three women remark upon how much weight Dex has gained since high school and two of them admit that they slept with him then. For his part, the bearded, big-bellied, Hawaiian-shirted Dex flirts effectively with the student bartender, but is more taken with Syd (Greer Goodman), the blond female drummer in the band playing at the event.
Dex, who teaches kindergarten and lives college-dorm-style with some other guys, has synthesized his views on life and love from numerous religions and philosophies. When he dispenses his wisdom to one of his young roommates who’s desperate to score, Dex’s first lesson is that he should not be aggressive or show physical interest at all. Second principle is to “do something excellent” to “demonstrate your sex-worthiness.”
But if Dex is going to get anywhere with Syd, a New York set designer working at the Santa Fe Opera for the summer, he’ll have to do a bit more than that. She’s sharp-witted and self-possessed enough to spot any ruse from a great distance and isn’t about to be talked into anything she doesn’t want to do. After seeing her a few times in friendly situations, Dex decides to go for broke by telling Syd that he’s falling in love with her, whereupon she gives him some news of her own: They once had sex while in high school, and he doesn’t even remember.
Most men would never be able to rebound from this one, but Dex finds an effective way to apologize. When Syd responds by inviting Dex on a camping trip with mutual friends, Dex can hardly refuse, even if hiking and camping are hardly activities through which he can demonstrate excellence and sex-worthiness. But when the husband of a woman Dex has been seeing pops him one, the nursing and maternal sides of Syd emerge, which in turn brings out a new dimension in Dex.
Script has the shape of an against-the-odds romantic comedy, and while the action does move in somewhat unlikely and jokey directions at times, it doesn’t feel manipulative or cloyingly contrived. Probably because Dex’s behavior is grounded in the chief screenwriter’s experiences, there is a pleasing lack of artifice even when the story development seems most unlikely, so Goodman is able to guide the film to its storybook conclusion without encountering much viewer skepticism or resistance.
Logue creates a shambling, dissembling, bumbling and stumbling character, truly the antithesis of the conventional ladies’ man. But, as women often say, humor counts for a lot, and Logue’s Dex has that, along with a disarming spontaneity that keeps the women, and the viewer, interested. A sort of crisp, no-nonsense Kristin Scott Thomas type, Greer Goodman holds her own with the star, but supporting parts could have been cast with more interesting actors, in the best tradition of romantic comedies.
Helmer avoids the usual tourist views of Santa Fe, virtually ignoring the area’s visual splendor in favor of using it as a utilitarian backdrop. Stylistically conventional, pic nevertheless moves along nicely and features some catchy tunes on the soundtrack.