Anyone seeking a window into the absurdities and stupidities of late-20th-century life could do far worse than the original televised misadventures of Beavis and Butt-Head. Of course, Mike Judge’s animated sensation, which disguised its high satire as the lowest of lowbrow comedy, was something of a mirror, too. Who were its eternally apathetic, horny and destructive adolescent heroes but boardwalk caricatures of the teens watching from home? With Beavis and Butt-Head, MTV lampooned its own audience – a whole generation of fellow tittering coach potatoes – alongside the countless other American stereotypes that passed into the pair’s orbit over seven seasons.
Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe isn’t much of a window or a mirror. The hook of this new feature-length vehicle is that it plucks television’s densest duo out of their natural 90s habitat and deposits them straight into the modern world. America hasn’t gotten any less spoofable in the 30 years since Beavis and Butt-Head made their ignoble small-screen debut; There’s no shortage of contemporary targets for Judge to lock in his comedic crosshairs. So why does the film feel like a missed opportunity in the satire department, even as its eponymous slacker idiots score plenty of familiar laughs?
Judge, who returns to write, direct and once more voice his most iconically imbecilic characters (yes, that’s still the film-maker supplying Butt-Head’s low, monotonic chortle and Beavis’s higher giggle), borrows a page from another popular pair of high- school Gen X buffoons: like Bill and Ted, Beavis and Butt-Head end up literally traveling through time – in this case, via a black hole they’re sucked into during a Nasa mission they bungle. What are America’s most clueless teens doing aboard a space shuttle? Blame an altruistic judge and an earnest astronaut (Andrea Savage) who mistakes the boys’ obsession with a phallically suggestive docking procedure for scientific curiosity.
Navigating time and space is a big leap for these two, whose first movie sent them across the comparably smaller frontier of the United States. Yet 1996’s Beavis and Butt-Head Do America was a more cinematic affair on the whole; part of its cleverness came down to how Judge expanded the storytelling canvas and elevated the animation of his TV comedy while clowning on the expectation that the pair might do anything more big-screen dramatic than get high and laugh at national landmarks. Befitting its fate as lowly streaming content, Do the Universe is structured more like a binge – though don’t expect any of the priceless Mystery Science Theater 3,000 music-video commentary that proved the invariable highlight of any actual B&B episode.
The movie’s best scenes exploit the comic possibilities of Beavis and Butt-Head colliding with a supposedly more enlightened present. At one point, they wander into a college lecture hall, where their usual talk of “sluts” is suddenly received as sex positivity; Naturally, they take the wrong lesson from the instructor’s crash course on white privilege. Do the Universe could use more such culture-clash riffing, and less of the bumbling antics of the Deep State tracking agents Beavis and Butt-Head. Maybe it’s a relief that Judge hasn’t aimed for topical jokes about the current political landscape, which has proved notoriously difficult to satirize these past few years. Still, his social observations are usually more trenchant than the smartphone misunderstandings and offhand references to antifa that pass here for a perspective on 2022.
Do the Universe is a hair more creative as a sci-fi parody, thanks to a running gag about the guys ignoring the instructions of their smartest multiverse counterparts. (As it turns out, “smartest” remains a relative distinction when you’re talking about any version of Beavis and Butt-Head.) Mostly, the film affects on lingeringion for the duo’s reliably amusing troglodyte shtick, their teenage-id pursuit of sensation and lizard-brain quest to lose their stubbornly enduring virginity. There’s actually an unexpected note of sweetness to the way Beavis, the more anxious and sensitive of these hopeless juvenile screw-ups, mistakes Siri for a real woman and falls in love, eventually jeopardizing his friendship with Butt-Head. Is Judge going soft with age?
Not really. Beavis and Butt-Head don’t actually grow in Do the Universe. They can’t grow. Their entire utility as satirical figures hinges on their irreformable numbskullery, the impossibility of changing or teaching or rehabilitating them. Thankfully, the time away hasn’t diminished the smart-dumb comedic value of their personas; watching this latest revival, fans will probably match them chuckle for chuckle. A better sequel, though, might have found more meaningful tension between these timelessly dumb kids and the ongoing dumbing down of the America they’ve been thrust into. Heh heh, we said thrust.