If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if it is broke, no harm in breaking it further. After the modest, cultier-than-thou successes of killer tire movie “Rubber” and lost dog odyssey “Wrong,” perpetual student filmmaker Quentin Dupieux returns with another iteration of his very narrowly defined field of expertise with “Reality” (you probably guessed that is a mildly ironic title). Surprisingly though, while he’s ploughing the same old furrow of deadpan sight gags with the color grade set to “stonewash” and disjointed moments of droll absurdity, “Reality,” if you’re in the right frame of mind, is actually pretty good fun, thanks to a clutch of enjoyable performances and a healthy dose of not taking itself even remotely seriously. In the film’s puzzle-box structure, justified by essentially being set in a network of dreams and movies (and dreams-within-dreams and movies-within-dreams-within-movies), very occasionally Dupieux puts together something that adds up to slightly more than a flash-in-the-pan pleasure. Even the sneaking suspicion, borne out by the end of the film’s slim 87-minute runtime, that none of it will coherently connect in any meaningful way didn’t stop us from trying to map it all out, and quixotically enjoying the process.
The nonsense begins with a father shooting a wild hog while his daughter, named —wait for it!— Reality (Kyla Kenedy), reads in the car. During the gutting, a blue videocassette slithers out from the hog’s intestines, though only Reality sees it and with which she becomes mildly obsessed. BUT! That whole scene appears to be part of a film that is being shot by director Zog (John Glover, aka Lionel Luthor of “Smallville”), and produced by Bob (Jonathan Lambert), who is also mulling over a movie pitch by Jason (a kinda great Alain Chabat), a cameraman on a weird public-access style cooking show fronted by Jon Heder in a rat suit. Jason is married to a shrink (Elodie Bouchez) who has Henri (Eric Wareheim, from Tim and Eric, who was also in Dupieux’s “Wrong” spinoff, “Wrong Cops”) as a patient, who turns out to be the superintendent of Reality’s school and who threatens to confiscate her beloved videotape, to which she replies by blackmailing him with the knowledge that he dresses as a woman and drives around in a military jeep insulting pensioners. Those of you who’ve made it to this point may notice that there’s already fuckery afoot, as Reality is both a movie character and a “real” girl, and the facts she blackmails Henri has already been recounted by him as a dream. To his shrink who is the wife of Jason who is etc etc etc. And we haven’t even touched on the bit where one of the Jasons (by the end there are several) buys a ticket for the movie he hasn’t yet shot, and tries to make the audience leave because “the groans are not good.”
As much as there is a single strand you can cling to, Jason’s monomaniacal pursuit of the perfect recorded groan, which will win him producer Bob’s favor and therefore get his terrible-sounding sci-fi film financed, will have to do. And if you really want to stretch a point, there is a light brush of inside-baseball satire about the cost of creative perfectionism and the arbitrary nature of the entertainment biz. But mostly the fun of “Reality” lies not in divining any particular subtext or grand overarching theme, but in trying to see the interstice between the possible, or “real,” and the impossible, on a micro level. It’s impressive that it’s quite hard to do, meaning that “Reality” ends up less a puzzle than an impossible object: one of those pictures of chairs with too few legs that is in fact an optical illusion. Trickiness is a shallow sort of cleverness, but it can be diverting, provided it has no pretensions to anything more, and “Reality,” refreshingly, has none of those. Its biggest loop-the-loop is saved for the end, when we (along with some of the other characters) actually see what’s on the damn tape. Here, Dupieux doubles down on the levels of absurd impossibility, and against the odds delivers an strangely satisfying reveal, more so for being unexpected just when we thought he’d run out of surprises.
Scored to a repetitive Philip Glass organ motif (Dupieux is of course, Mr. Oizo, who created minimalist hit “Flat Beat,” but he’s not involved in the film’s music), the desired effect of the film is probably best summed up by a line delivered to Jon Heder’s character (incidentally the role least well-integrated into the overriding narrative). Having been convinced that he’s suffering from an allergic reaction to detergent that has covered his skin in disfiguring rashes, (when in fact no such rashes are visible), some inexplicable schism occurs and suddenly it’s someone else in the rat suit, talking to Heder. “It IS eczema,” the new guy in the rat outfit tells him, “But it’s eczema on the inside of your head.” Too transitory and too undemanding to be termed a mindfuck, for “Reality” minditch seems about right, and it’s one you even occasionally get the pleasure of scratching. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Venice International Film Festival.