For an 89-minute film based around a one-joke premise, Rubber proves surprisingly hard to pin down. On one hand, it proves the most riotous example of an openly meaningless film since the Coen brothers made their After Hours with Burn After Reading. On the other, director Quentin Dupieux's transparent overexertion to make Rubber into a cult film subtracts from its loopy charm, and for all the clever jokes that arise from its meta-humor, I wish he'd played it straighter.
But the tangled web of ironic filmmaking makes figuring out what I think of a movie as difficult as sussing out its intended and unintended dips in quality, so maybe it's fitting that the best scene of the film is also a summary of what's wrong with it. Opening on static shots of chairs bizarrely arranged on a remote desert road, Rubber gets underway with outright fourth-wall breaking as a car drives over every chair on the road, stops and pops open its trunk to reveal a sheriff who promptly gets a glass of water. He begins asking rhetorical questions to the camera, such as "In Spielberg's E.T., why is the alien brown? No reason." Eventually, examples of reasonless moments in cinema have clear reasons indeed ("Why does the president get shot" in JFK?). He gives the audience a vital, if self-absolving, key to this movie, calling it an "homage to 'no reason,' that most powerful element of style." You've been warned.
Rubber unabashedly sticks to its simple concept: a tire gains sentience and begins killing things, starting with rolling over a plastic water bottle and culminating into killing larger beings with telepathic powers. It is so outrageously stupid, and so outrageously funny. Seriously, that's it. But of course that's it; how much more absurd would it be if the tire had motives? If it was a horror riff on Rahmin Bahrani's haunting anthropomorphizing of trash in Plastic Bag?
If the film has any logical progression -- and it doesn't, dear reader. It doesn't -- it is in the evolution of targets for the tire. But that only gets you about 10 minutes into the film. The rest is a repetitive, surreal exercise that you'll either jell with or hate. I laughed my head off. I admit I could have done with about 15 fewer minutes of an already short film, but Rubber by and large plays by the "Simpsons rake" joke, the idea being that, if you stick to the same gag without end, it will cease to be funny only to become funnier than ever.
Less engaging are the cutaways to the "audience" watching the film, a self-referential cross-section of the average filmgoing crowd of all ages standing out in the desert watching it all through binoculars. But save for a few telling grins on the spectators' faces when the tire kills its first human, this diegetic audience does not make any real comment on the nature of film-goers, nor do they even offer a diverse view of audience reaction and participation. Most of them jeer aloud, and only two young women try to watch in peace. I expected more MST3K-style riffing, but these scenes mostly fell flat, and I found myself thankful for a meaningless (natch) twist halfway through that takes care of this problem for the most part.
As much as I enjoyed the straight aspects of the film, I must admit that the film does pick up when this turn of events knocks Rubber off its axis and finally finds use for its reflexivity by threatening to collapse the whole thing. At last, Dupieux starts incorporating the metahumor with the farcical "straight" horror-comedy and finds some wonderfully off-the-wall inspiration in the collision.
However, the climactic showdown with the tire fell flat, not because of the drawn-out, flat tone of the scene but because one of the in-film audience members calls the actors out on it. As is so frustratingly common with modern films, postmodernism is used not to really dig into the makeup of a film but to wash the makers' hands of bad writing. The sheriff makes up for things when he gets so fed up he cuts the Gordian knot of his obtuse plan and declares, "The end. Bye," but the scene might have fully worked if Dupieux trusted the audience to be well aware that the film was sticking by its maxim of "no reason" and didn't need further explanation. A line about reincarnation, though, slew me and made up for everything I hated about the scene.
It's tempting to try to read something in Rubber, the destructive progression of the newly sentient tire suggesting instinctual violence and rage in all "living" creatures. But I prefer to take Rubber at its word of having no moral, no purpose, no guiding logic. I just wish it had the courage of its convictions instead of using so much of its reflexive material not to make an even more surreal movie but to let itself off the hook. Still, I admire Dupieux for taking a "check your brain at the door" movie and trying to make something cerebral out of it so people actually pay attention. For every meta moment that doesn't work, another one does, and if Rubber loses steam at the end, it nearly becomes the cult film it so desperately wants to be.
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