André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto envisions a program of personal and artistic resistance based on the unruly chaos of the human mind, the freeform disorder of which serves to point out the absurdity inherent to supposedly logical systems. Fringe filmmakers have long seized on these ideas for inspiration, using the movement’s oneiric methods to both subvert the stern dictates of traditional storytelling and rail at the irrationality of certain societal codes. This isn’t exactly the case for Quentin Dupieux, a marginally gifted charlatan who works within a rough context of surrealism, exploring the same general ideas but with little of the artistry or inspiration.
The result, as seen in the fitfully amusing but ultimately frivolous Wrong, is a watered-down version of the same ambitions that produced Jean Cocteau’s hallucinatory excursions or David Lynch’s waking nightmares. Working in a suburban world of track housing and identical lawns, it’s fitting that Dupieux adopts the blown-out, shallow-focus aesthetic of modern TV commercials, considering the reductive and episodic nature of these bite-sized bits of absurdity. The story functions as a loose a web of non sequiturs and bizarre set pieces spun around confused loser Dolph (Jack Plotnick), who first loses his dog, then his grip on reality, with a series of strange coincidences pushing him ever closer to the edge. The sluggish narrative functions as a scaffold for this thinly connected series of humorous events, which seek to locate the arbitrary nature of the circumscribed behavioral patterns that govern our everyday lives, giving Dupieux the chance to point out how artificial these routines actually are.
This is well-worn territory, an early surrealist like Luis Buñuel having pretty extensively mapped it out decades ago, which means that Wrong never verges beyond mere cuteness. This is a step above Dupieux’s previous film, Rubber, which stretched a few scarce instances of such cuteness across an otherwise barren 90 minutes, but this film is more an example of lateral movement than direct progress. Instead of extending one simple concept far beyond its means, the director simply hatches an entire crop of them, all of which exhibit the same unsteady grasp on the potential effects of this sort of freeform filmmaking. Enough things here are momentarily amusing for Wrong to work as a weird, breezy comedy, but it aims for resonance that it never quite earns.
The way the potentially interesting setup gives way to a lazy, self-satisfied outcome recalls Seven Psychopaths, which took a similar deconstructed scenario and then left it equally undeveloped, squandering promise via engorged contentment with its own cleverness. Wrong is even more ideologically bereft, but a little easier to spend 90 minutes with, since it doesn’t seem to have any pretensions beyond the regimented unveiling of a parade of odd occurrences, plodding along under the banner of absurdity. A few of these skirt the fringes of bona fide surrealist effect, in that they actively push for something beyond knowing laughter. A series of scenes at Dolph’s former office, which is besieged by an endless rainstorm, are at least viscerally effecting, and a bit concerning a device that transmits the final memories of a dog turd ends up exhibiting a peculiar metaphysical beauty.
A clear source of inspiration seems to be Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, and charting the differences between the two may help to determine why one works and the other doesn’t. Both exist in an ostensibly realistic, tightly regimented world where things have gone slightly askew (palm trees transform into pines and business lingo edges into outright gibberish), but Soderbergh’s film was motivated by obvious frustrations and operated within a context of genuinely disquieting lunacy; Dupieux’s movie is just glib and complacent, aiming for softball social commentary via a scattered array of comic sketches. It’s surrealism in its most basic form, avoiding genuine discomfort and revealing nothing beyond the painfully obvious.