Merrily, Merrily, by Matt Warren
My previous encounters with the work of impish French surrealist Quentin Dupieux have not gone bon. I jettisoned his killer-tire debut feature Rubber from my Netflix queue after just eight scant minutes of scabby-eyed indifference. His follow-up, the audience-trolling conspiracy satire Wrong, fared much better. I gutted that motherfucker out for almost an entire hour before deciding that life was a precious gift I was imprudently flushing down the toilet. So it’s with great happy surprise that I can tell you his latest, Reality, is actually quite enjoyable and entertaining—deepening Dupieux’s pet themes and refining his aesthetic without compromising his steadfast commitment to weirdness. Plus, you get to see Napoleon Dynamite in a fetid, unwashed rat costume. As the trades would say: boffo!
Have you seen Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie? You have? Good! You’ll have some frame of reference then for what Reality has in store for you. It’s a comedy, sure, but the kind of comedy that makes you scratch your head with a fork and go “huh?” rather than roll on the floor laughing. The film’s title is also is subject, explored through a series of self-negating and self-contradicting dreams, digressions, and overlapping temporalities. Some films have movies-within-movies. Reality has movies next to and outside of movies. It reminded me a little of Guy Maddin’s upcoming (and amazing) The Forbidden Room, which doesn’t have a Russian-nesting-doll structure so much as it blows the Russian nesting doll to pieces and sifts through the rubble. Reality is nowhere near as frenetic or formally dense as Room, but it’s bound for the “Mind Bending” carousel on Netflix nonetheless. Your mom won’t come close to ever knowing this movie even exists, but if she did she would hate it.
I seem to take on a lot of reviews with plots that are all but impossible to describe. But I’ve got my sugar-free Rock Star uncapped, my belt cinched, and I’m ready to fucking do this. So: as mentioned, acclaimed Mormon thespian Jon Heder plays the slowly unraveling host of a cooking show wherein he’s required—for some reason—to wear an enormous, repulsive rat costume. Eventually, he complains of a debilitating skin rash that no one else can see or diagnose. That’s one thing. Then there’s a little girl (Kyla Kenedy), named “Reality,” who lives in the woods with her taxidermist father. One day, Taxidermy Dad (Matt Battaglia) shoots a buck and sets about gutting it. Buried in the offal, Reality finds a battered purple VHS tape. WHAT’S ON THAT TAPE?! There’s also harried, would-be horror director Jason Tantra (Alain Chabat), who moonlights as a cameraman on Heder’s verminous culinary program, who is in desperate search of the perfect blood-curdling scream—a condition of film financing from ambiguously homicidal film producer “Bob” (Jonathan Lambert.) Add to this Zog (John Glover), a mercurial documentarian with strict metaphysical ethics, and Reality’s crossdressing, Jeep-driving day school headmaster (Eric Wareheim) and you’ve got yourself…something.
These story threads overlap and interweave, becoming text inside each other. Then everything reverses polarity to reset and recalibrate. It happens a lot. For example: Tantra’s film Waves (the plot of which recalls Dupieux’s own Rubber) either has or has not already been made, either by Tantra himself or his double, working in an alternate-yet-permeable timestream. Wareheim’s headmaster recounts a shameful dream to his therapist. The dream is really either a flashback or a flashforward, yet interacts with the other stories in ways that totally scramble the timeline. It’s weird, funny, and in its own odd way every bit as much of a cross-cutting L.A. tapestry film as Short Cuts or Magnolia. The big punchline, of course, is that it’s a movie. It’s all unreal, so why get hung up on whom the “actual” characters are or which narrative has metaphysical primacy? Sure, maybe the film’s themes are a bit too easy to decode, but when it’s this much fun who cares?
The easiest read of Reality is that it’s a meditation on the act of filmmaking itself. But I always find movies about movies to be a little tiresome so I choose to look at things more broadly. Film characters don’t know if they’re real or fake any more than we do, our dreamselves do, or the memory versions of ourselves do. Which is to say: mostly, but not always.
One thing I’ve always liked about Dupieux’s movies, even when they haven’t worked for me overall, is how they look. Something about Rubber Duppy’s signature combo of muted color timing, shot composition, and quirky focal lengths strikes me as weirdly elegant. And the pacing here is a big step up from Wrong’s wack funereal plod. The acting is good, too. Wareheim, Heder, and especially Chabat all really pop—the lattermost has the closest thing to an actual three-dimensional character with an identifiable arc: the bumbling, slightly pathetic would-be artist forever stymied by the capricious whims of a cruel and unseen puppet master.
If you’ve got a taste for dark comedy, quirk, and surrealist storytelling, Reality will work for you. If these things frustrate or annoy you, then it probably won’t. But the most important thing to remember is this: rat costumes are a bitch to dry clean.