Shortly before Zach Galifianakis’ breakout role in The Hangover (2009) and the almost instantaneous stream of quirky supporting roles that he went on to play, he actually had a leading role in a film whose tone and content couldn’t be better suited for another actor. Visioneers was released in 2008, but it didn’t see a wide release until after Galifianakis become known as “that guy who mispronounces the word retard.” Fans of his stand-up work had long known him for his deadpan humor and trademark awkward silences between jokes. While his post-Hangover success has seen him mainly doing many different versions of lovable idiots, Visioneers offers a look at what Galifianakis can do when he solely anchors a movie. And in proving that it isn’t too out of step with his usual routine, he mispronounces the word chaos.
Galifianakis plays George Washington Winsterhammerman, a descendant of the George Washington and a mid-level manager the Jeffers Corporation, whose role in society is menacing but vague. The Jeffers Corporation creates solutions to a national epidemic of spontaneously exploding people. In this bizarre and not-too-distant future, emotions are the enemy of work and productivity. The work environment at the offices of Jeffers includes a clock on the wall counting down the “minutes of productivity left until the weekend,” stacks of paper with microscopic printing, and a traditional greeting of the middle finger. There are plenty of familiar tropes of sci-fi dystopia mixed with irreverence toward typical notions of success in America. If Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) was George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) by way of Monty Python, then Visioneers tells a similar story by way of Funny or Die.
The suburban plight of the Winsterhammerman family is almost depressing in its portrait of the boredom of middle-class stagnation. George’s wife (Judy Greer) stays at home and takes advice from various self-help gurus. Their son Roger neither leaves his room nor says a word for the entire film. They go through the general motions of normal behavior, having dinner together, talking about their days, and trying to be interested in each other, but emotional numbness trumps it all. George begins exhibiting all the usual symptoms that middle-class boredom causes, such as exploding, impotence, trouble sleeping, and recurring dreams. Again, no one in the world of Visioneers ever completely understands what’s causing his problems, at first turning to strange stress reducing therapies, before the Jeffers Corporation and the government come up with the drastic solution of installing emotional inhibitors on anyone showing such symptoms.
As an absurdist film, Visioneers never seems to waste an opportunity at turning physical comedy into social satire. Zach Galifianakis has never had a problem with making himself look ridiculous for the sake of comedy, but this time around, it’s done to highlight the emptiness of a dominant corporate culture. Nothing in the world of Visioneers is ever done without at least some awkward moments. Among the many attempts at stress reduction, everything Galifianakis’ character goes through highlights the lack of normalcy around him. The subtle reactions that he has to every new forced situation shows an actual range beyond his typical weirdo characters.