Most of the individual components of “Visioneers” are not new, nor are the film’s ideas particularly deep. Yet somehow the combination, written and directed by brothers Jared and Brandon Drake — in their first film, amazingly — feels fresh and invigorating. It’s a high-concept comedy, but it’s down-to-earth and accessible, even a little touching. It’s a terrific start for a pair of new filmmakers.
The setting is a dystopian version of modern-day America, where the Jeffers Corporation is the most powerful entity in the world. Even the U.S. president kowtows to the monolithic company, whose employees are called “tunts” and “goobs” and work at ill-defined tasks at various bureaucratic levels. As with most firms in dystopian movies, it’s never established what, exactly, the Jeffers Corp. does, but its influence is felt everywhere. Common people greet each other with the “Jeffers salute,” which looks suspiciously like flipping the bird.
Our hero is a Level 3 tunt named George Washington Winsterhammerman (Zach Galifianakis). He’s the supervisor of a little pod of employees who work in a depressing office where an automated voice announces, every 60 seconds, how many minutes remain before the weekend. Everyone is generally disheartened and depressed, but this has been enhanced in recent weeks as citizens have been spontaneously combusting due to stress.
One way to avoid stress, of course, is to just accept things as they are. (“Forget ourselves, work together” is the Jeffers Corp. motto.) Unfortunately, George Washington Winsterhammerman has been suffering from dreams and ambitions lately, and it’s been established that this is a precursor to exploding. He has a wife, Michelle (Judy Greer), who spends all her time seeking happiness via TV products and eating a lot of butter, but he hardly loves her anymore. Instead, he looks forward to the few minutes each day that he can talk on the phone to Charisma (Mia Maestro), the Level 4 goob who supervises his department. It is the one time that George’s mood brightens.
As George worries more and more about the possibility of explosion, the film dives deeper and deeper into its satire of modern corporate-driven life, where happiness is elusive while complacency is easily achieved. It’s a simple truth that everyone wants to be happy. What separates us is how we go about looking for happiness, or whether we even look for it at all. Sometimes we try elaborate, stupid measures to produce happiness when the real solution is staring us in the face. George’s brother (James LeGros) has already found that pole-vaulting makes him happy, though his refusal to participate in the Jeffers-sanctioned programs has made him a government target.
“Visioneers” is about George’s search for meaning in his life, and comedian Zach Galifianakis plays the role with more conviction and depth than you might have expected. George is subdued and contemplative, but not boring — and that’s a fine line for an actor to walk. He earns laughs through the old-fashioned method of being the only sane person in a sea of crazies, but the filmmakers avoid overplaying the lunacy of the world they’ve created. Understatement is the rule.
And it works magnificently. Like I said, we’ve seen a lot of these ideas before. But even if it’s not reinventing the wheel, “Visioneers” still manages to be insightful, intelligent, and melancholically funny. If the Drake brothers have any more stories as good as this one, they could become an exciting new force in the film world. Let me be the first to give them a Jeffers salute, but in a good way.
B+ (1 hr., 34 min.; )