A less cohesive and stimulating exercise than his previous feature, the mystifyingly wise-cracking Rubber, Quentin Dupieux’s newest film, Wrong, is nevertheless the work of a distinct authorial voice. The film doesn’t quite come together, and it’s hardly built to last both emotionally and ideologically, but after recently sitting through a film as thoroughly mind-numbing as John Dies at the End, there’s something peculiarly refreshing and even pleasant about Dupieux’s brand of absurdism. He doesn’t try to find nonsense in the extreme — as in the psychedelic overkill of John Dies at the End — but rather locates senselessness in quiet, subdued moments of human interaction. It’s a neat trick he pulls, depicting irrationality in the pauses and confusion of everyday activity.
Before meeting the film’s protagonist, Dolph Springer (Jack Plotnick), Wrong traces a prologue that identifies Dupieux’s tone. As a crushed van sits in flames on the side of a highway, a group of firefighters pass the time nonchalantly, not bothering to even identify the nearby fire. (One of them goes to the bathroom on a bucket as the vehicle explodes behind him.) Anyone familiar with Rubber, which followed a telepathic tire that systematically kills the members of a California desert-town, should be primed to expect similarly head-scratching things from Wrong, and the film doesn’t disappoint in that department: Dupieux gives us, among other things, a palm tree that has mysteriously turned into a pine tree overnight, a man that spends his afternoons changing the paint on parked cars, and an office-place that is constantly drenched with pouring rain (though the soaked, obedient workers don’t care to acknowledge it).
Though many of these touches are seen as elements pushed into Dolph’s story against his will, the film’s timid, insecure main character isn’t without unusual quirks of his own. He was fired from his job three months ago, but continues to go into work every day, still unable to move forward and look for a new path. This bothers his co-workers, who for some reason find Dolph’s orderly presence more irksome than the incessant rain that floods their workplace. Dolph even makes an encounter as simple as ordering a pizza an extended ordeal: he spends no less than five or ten minutes speaking to delivery-girl Emma (Alexis Dziena) over the phone about the meaning of her employer’s logo, which perplexes Dolph immensely. Another interesting development involves Dolph’s across-the-street neighbor (Regan Burns), who has just packed a pair of suitcases and is planning to flee his suburban lifestyle for good.
To Dolph, though, the most concerning conflict of all is the status of his dog, who has apparently gone missing. An unorthodox investigation leads Dolph to a figure named Master Chang (William Fichtner), the author of a multi-volume series of books titled My Life, My Dog, My Strength. Chang, whose face is half-scarred from an acid accident, has taken it upon himself to kidnap dogs on a daily basis, so that when he returns them, the owner’s pet-centered devotion will increase tenfold. Chang gives Dolph a copy of his book, which is comprised of psychic drawings and diagrams, and, in a theme carried over from Rubber, encourages Dolph to communicate with his dog telepathically. Unfortunately, Dolph’s promising attempts to achieve this supernatural ability are often thwarted by the people around him. A particularly puzzling situation has Emma, the pizza-delivery girl, initiating a relationship with Dolph’s gardner, Victor (Eric Judor), unaware that this dark-skinned Frenchman isn’t the person she spoke with on the phone.
While his sensibility is sometimes crudely singular, Dupieux knows how to get a laugh, and Wrong works well enough on a comedic level. A recurring joke about Dolph’s neighbor’s fear of admitting his jogging habit — “There’s no shame in jogging,” Dolph tries to tell him — is silly enough to land, as is the appearance of a knucklehead detective (Steve Little) who’s more intrigued by the fecal matter of Dolph’s dog than an actual picture of the pet. Where Dupieux’s writing has more trouble is in collecting these standalone comedic bits into an overall narrative that has logic and meaning. To say that Dupieux has any visible interest in sense-making would be misguided, I think, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a frustrating lack of connective tissue in the storytelling design of Wrong. Though Dupieux strikes me as a sure-handed filmmaker — working overtime in both the cinematography and editing departments, he has an affinity for bright, bulb-like images, and his construction of scenes is often surreal — it sometimes feels as if he has no idea what he’s actually writing.
A fair amount of this is probably a result of the thin portrait we get of Dolph. The low-key Plotnick contributes a capable performance — and one that’s a fairly major physical departure from his supporting turn in Rubber — but even he seems confused regarding how to fill in this character’s profile. Because Dupieux’s situational comedy is so disorienting, Plotnick is almost always forced into embodying a state of wide-eyed befuddlement: it’s as if Dolph himself is subservient to Dupieux’s omniscient oversight, resulting in a personality that plays like more of a flustered audience surrogate than a fleshed-out person. It’s not so much the absence of cinematic discourse, then, that makes Wrong a weaker effort than the self-referential Rubber — it’s the fact that Dolph isn’t nearly as fun or engaging to watch as the serial-killing tire that dominates Rubber. This is likely a reflection of where Dupieux is currently at as a feature-length screenwriter.