Between the tail end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, moviegoers had a high tolerance for pairs of male friends with more breezy optimism than brains. These dopey man-children included Wayne and Garth in “Wayne’s World”, Lloyd and Harry in “Dumb and Dumber”, and two happy-go-lucky doofuses called Bill and Ted, Jules and Vincent in “Pulp Fiction” (a more dangerous species of this genus), and “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion” as the female alternative. The idiots played by Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott in “Dude, Where’s My Car?” killed off the trend in 2000 — temporarily, at least.
Now two such dumb chums return in a meandering and often hilarious lowlife comedy written, directed, shot, and edited by Quentin Dupieux, who made last year’s “Deerskin” with Jean Dujardin. “Mandibules” is the French absurdist’s most affable and accessible film to date, but still has his own personal brand of deadpan oddness. It lasts just 77 minutes, as “Deerskin” did, and one of its central characters is a horsefly the size of a Yorkshire Terrier.
Before we meet this fly, we meet Manu (Grégoire Ludig), an unshaven, straggly-haired layabout who is well into his 30s. He is first seen sleeping on a beach in the sunny South of France, and not noticing that the rising tide has reached his toes. An associate who should probably know better wakes him and entrusts him with a simple but important mission: pick up a suitcase from person A, drive it 15 miles to person B, and collect 500 euros. Anyone who has seen “The Transporter” can guess what might happen next: Manu will open the case and embroil himself in a fast-paced Mediterranean conspiracy thriller featuring gangsters and government agents. It’s a guess that would be wrong.
Veering away from conventional plotting at every turn, “Mandibules” has Manu hot-wiring a clapped-out Mercedes, and visiting his best friend, the similarly feckless Jean-Gab (David Marsais), at the gas station managed by his mother. Manu invites Jean-Gab along for the ride, but they soon hear a buzzing, thumping noise from the trunk of the car. When they open it, they find an enormous fly (actually a cuddly, spiky-bristled puppet operated by “Star Wars” alumnus Dave Chapman). The joke is that they are too stupid to be shocked by this freakish creature. It doesn’t occur to either of them to ask how it came to be supersized, and Dupieux doesn’t concern himself with the question, either. Instead, Jean-Gab announces his “killer plan.” They should forget about the 500 euros, and focus on training the fly to carry out robberies for them. It will be like a drone, but better, he reasons, because it doesn’t need batteries. So, now for an insect-related crime caper featuring gangsters and government agents? Again: nope.
“Mandibules” has its own lackadaisical logic, as if Dupieux were making up his shaggy-fly story as he went along. When the men meet a woman who was brain-damaged in a skiing accident and has to talk at shouting volume (a deft, cruelly funny supporting turn from Adèle Exarchopoulos of “Blue Is the Warmest Color”), they are no more surprised than they were by their mutant fly. Even less competent than the crooks in a Coen Brothers farce, Manu and Jean-Gab drift from episode to episode, always convinced they are taking the wisest course of action, whether stealing a caravan to use as a “training zone” or staying in the holiday home of a woman who mistakes Manu for an old schoolmate. Training the fly (which they name Dominique and feed with cat food) comes to seem as unimportant to them as delivering the suitcase. What matters is their own friendship, complete with its own special “toro” catchphrase and handshake.
They are, objectively, a dreadful pair of human beings, with no qualms about theft and assault, and no interest in anyone else’s feelings. But their miraculous dimness, and their perpetual failure to profit from their sins, makes them forgivable. Their own uncomplicated relationship is winning, too. The magic is that however disastrous Manu’s schemes are, Jean-Gab approves of them, and vice versa. It helps that Ludig and Marsais, who underplay their boneheaded characters perfectly, are a sketch comedy duo with a French television series, “Palmashow”, and enough chemistry to ensure that you never doubt that they are old pals.
It would be good to see them reunited in a sequel. What makes “Mandibules” so refreshing is that, just as its anti-heroes don’t care about how they are supposed to behave, Dupieux has an airy disregard for how a chase thriller or a horror movie is supposed to proceed. He buzzes around wherever he wants to go. The buddy comedies of the 1990s were rarely as refreshing as this. But then, they rarely had any humungous insects in them, either.
“Mandibules” premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and is currently seeking U.S. distribution.