A few days ago in Tokyo, the men’s Olympic freestyle skateboarding finals escalated into a “can-you-top-this” shootout. The athletes pushed the excitement through the screen and into our laps. It was youthful and vibrant, palpable — a degree of energy that eludes French director Quentin Dupieux, even with a can-you-top-this film of his own.
Dupieux, whose style brings us pleasantly off-kilter works, is a delightfully eccentric filmmaker. His 2019 film, “Deerskin,” was about a man’s suede-inspired “killer style.” Dupieux fully intended the deathly wordplay. This time, the absurdity is a giant, trunk-sized fly.
“Mandibles,” the director’s latest, turns down the morbidity, but replaces it with riffs on crime — the subversive kind that suburbanites warn their children of. The waves are lapping at our main character Manu’s (Grégoire Ludig, neck-bearded) feet when we first meet him, having taken to sleeping on the beach after being kicked out of his mom’s house. The very suave Frenchman waking him up is part of a syndicated crime group, a face offering Manu 500 Euros to take a briefcase from point A to B.
The rest of the film is caught in a seaside afternoon glow: The linen shirts have a saturated haze around the edges. You can practically feel the sea breeze when Manu invites lifelong friend Jean-Gab (David Marsais) to join the adventure, but as soon as they get on the road, a buzzing from the trunk stops them in a recluse’s dusty lot. The fly, a stowaway in the car Manu stole, shreds their plans (how can they put the briefcase in the trunk when the fly is there, Manu wonders). In a bind, the guys stumble on bringing the fly onboard and training it to rob banks — a sort of plausible deniability for the two humans.
As “Mandibles” gets up to speed, it doesn’t matter that Manu and Jean-Gab are hilarious delinquents who insist on making three-course dinners on the lam, because Dupieux’s comedy can’t keep up with his tonal work. “No reason” motivated Dupieux’s 2010 film “Rubber” and in some ways, despite a more conventional narrative, it motivates “Mandibles,” too — a reason itself that allows Dupieux to dodge accountability to his audience, writing himself blank checks for narrative dents.
Manu and Jean-Gab hit the road and then, after discovering the fly, the fan. The quick job for quick cash-starved, the two come up with a hair-brained scheme to get out of the bind they’re in. This is starting to sound a lot like “Fargo;” Dupieux is no stranger to playing on the Coen brothers. Dupieux’s “Rubber” plopped a killer tire in a desert reminiscent of “No Country for Old Men,” only after stripping Stephen King’s 1958 Plymouth Fury of its parts. His works are neither boring nor exciting, middle-brow eschewments of narrative and form masquerading as low-brow farce.
This time, the twist comes “Dumb and Dumber”-inspired, loosing Manu and Jean-Gab on a gaggle of young vacationers — the saviors of this film — who mistake Manu for a high school friend and invite him and Jean-Gab to join them for a few days. Cue hijinks, including giant-fly-bundling galore. The real treat of the film, however, is Adèle Exarchopoulos as Agnès, a girl on the trip who developed a vocal problem, from brain damage incurred while skiing, that forces her to speak at a yell.
That setup is shaky ground for a filmmaker, which gives “Mandibles” more material — the film is smarter than it lets on. Those loose-tongued enough to use a slur about the disabled find themselves pricked, and later the film points the finger at us for ever doubting Manu and Jean-Gab’s intellect.
Yet, that plus Exarchopoulos’s hilarious performance aren’t enough to get us to forget about the dead spots littered elsewhere. Dupieux, not having learned from how lethargic “Rubber” was, turns in another indulged film, a way of forgetting the audience exists. “Mandibles” could have been rolling-in-your-seat funny, but it ends up as little more than a chuckle under your breath.