Received at film fests and among cult cinema fans with the giddy glee of an inside joke, Quentin Dupieux‘s “Rubber” was a film more celebrated than ultimately worthy of celebration. Dupieux’s piss-take on ’70s killer-car horror (and, by extension, all cinema) as a psychic rubber tire self-motivated itself through the American West, sporadically killing people telekinetically, felt to me like a short film larded up with unrequired bulk — or, as I may have tweeted at the time, ” ‘Rubber’ rolls along for a while, starts wobbling, then goes flat.” “Wrong,” premiering at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, was a chance to see what Dupieux could really do. And what he can really do is not direct.
To be sure, Dupieux’s technical skills are playful and adept — CGI, stunts, reversed footage, jump-cutting and cute comedic timing — but this is the equivalent of Max Fischer from “Rushmore” leading all of his extracurricular clubs while flunking his actual classes. If we measure the success of a director by their capacity to tell a story, Dupieux gets failing marks, and no amount of deadpan surrealist comedy and inventive camerawork is going to make up for that, or wipe what feels like the film itself giving you a smug smirk of cool condescension: “Oh, you don’t get it? I figured you wouldn’t.”
Jack Plotnick — whose game and excellent work here is so good you wish it could have been in the service of an actual script — is Dolph Springer, a regular joe who wakes up to find his dog Paul is missing. He goes outside to call for Paul, but gets distracted by a flyer for a new pizza joint in the neighborhood, calling the restaurant to ask nonsensical questions: Is the pizza delivered in a box? Does the box have the same logo as the flyer? Why is the rabbit on the logo riding a motorcycle?
We’ve already seen Dolph’s old-school flapping-tile alarm clock flip from 7:59 to “7:60, so realism is clearly not on the table here. The better question might be what actually is. Why do we care about Dolph’s crises and calamities if he lives in a world with no logic? And if Dupieux merely wanted to present a phantasmagoria of insane images and ideas, why bother with characters or plot at all? The American magical-realism of Miranda July or the similarly-themed boundary-stretching of Charlie Kaufman also play fast and loose with the rules of reality, but those writers always bring it back to illuminate emotional truths about character and ideas on how life should be lived. Dupieux isn’t an anarchist or a surrealist, he’s just a brat — Oh, that character who died earlier? He’s alive now. And no one’s going to say word one about it.
Paul, it turns out, has been taken by Mr. Chang (William Fichtner, wasted in a role that shoves his delivery and skills into a shallow reverse-racism joke), who abducts pets from their owners so that they might be properly grateful when the animals are returned. But Paul’s abduction goes awry, with the dog on the run, and so Mr. Chang hires Detective Ronnie (Steve Little, forced to enact such moments as psychic-resonance dog poop forensics) to find him. Meanwhile Emma (Alexis Dziena), the pizza-shop employee Dolph spoke with earlier, sends a note to Dolph with erotic intent, but it’s intercepted by his gardener Victor (Eric Judor), who then begins a hasty and ill-advised relationship with her, with Emma going into labor just a few days after coitus.
No, watching the film does not make any of this “clearer,” and that’s not what Dupieux cares about. But it’s incredibly hard to tell what, exactly, Dupieux cares about other than his own self-amused absurdist explorations of absurdity for its own sake. Sure, I laughed at some of the non-sequitur jokes and moments in “Wrong,” but the film around them is a fog of phoniness and so-unhip-its-hip visual storytelling with no story to tell. Dupieux is being heralded as a new voice in filmmaking — by around five film writers with the same beard who write mainly to impress each other when they gather in Brooklyn to compare horn rimmed glasses and arrogant statements intended to drown out their insecurities. But it’s all hype, and hollow hype at that. At best, Dupieux is a French Tim Burton or Baz Luhrmann or Zack Snyder, a visual stylist promoted far above his competencies, interests or skill level, either failing in or not even trying to execute the director’s true task of using visual expression to create creating clean, clear compelling storytelling with emotionally rewarding moments and performances.
At my press screening, a person behind me expressed confusion at the above-mentioned resurrection: “Did he come back from the dead?” Their viewing companion was blasé: “Sure — why not?” Dupieux doesn’t lack for inventiveness and panache; what he lacks is a point-of-view or point to make. Everyone wants to be a rule-breaker but what no one tells you is that the best rule-breakers know exactly which rules they’re breaking, and why, and how, and do so to make a point. Many directors make music videos to break into feature films but the worn-tread “Rubber” outstayed its welcome and going by the absolute zero of pretty pointless pictures and shameless self-indulgence represented by “Wrong,” you’d swear Dupieux was looking to do the reverse. [D]