If real life were like Wrong, Quentin Dupieux’s sweetly unnerving experiment in ambient fucked-uppedness, your phone would ring before you’ve finished this sentence, and the words you haven’t gotten to yet would be read aloud to you by a voice you’ve never heard before. Then, while you’re at lunch someplace, a stranger passing by might stop and declaim this sentence. The next one would be spoken by the man outside who has taken it upon himself to paint your car blue. Before you can ask him to stop, the restaurant’s manager emerges to suggest that you never dare return there again. And then you remember: You don’t own a car.
At some point, let’s say, you come back and read the rest of this review, because Wrong is, if nothing else, a film you should know about. That title refers to a persistent, alienating wrongness in the everyday grind of its hapless protagonist, Dolph Springer (Jack Plotnick), a shock-haired sad-sack who is more a piece of indie comic-strip iconography than a full-fledged movie character. Springer’s alarm clock flips from 7:59 to 7:60; his mailbox contains a stamped envelope with no writing on it; his gardener insist there’s a problem with his palm tree—a problem so upsetting it can’t be discussed on the phone. It’s the kind of troubles Ziggy might have if Ziggy were written by a depressed grad student.
Wrongest of all, Springer’s pooch has gone missing. That mystery gives the film its spine, but for much of its running time Wrong is happily invertebrate. For the first 40 minutes, writer/director/editor/ cinematographer Dupieux simmers Springer (and us) in an almost-stoned daydream, the existential sweats of Lynch and Kafka here adopted as a comic mode. It’s amusingly aimless, with Springer wandering lonely L.A. neighborhoods and engaging in daft, deadpan conversations with whomever he encounters. The best, with the pizza-shop worker, is a flat marvel. As Springer asks question after question about the pizza place’s dopey advertising, the scene feels like some kid is working through every last available dialogue option in a chatty video game. It builds to this conclusion: “The logo is ill-conceived. It must be unsettling.”
If you find that line funny, Wrong is for you. If not, this could be a slog. Things perk up considerably with the arrival of William Fichtner as Master Chang, a billionaire telepath who writes books on how to mind-talk with your pets. From there, the movie flirts with a more purposeful—and, to my mind, less exciting—strangeness. The scenes begin to feel plotted rather than like anything-can-happen fits. We get an explanation for the missing dog and some ridiculous detective work that yields a grainy first-person trip through the pup’s colon and onto the lawn. The pizza-shop employee (Alexis Dziena) for some reason falls in love with Springer, and the comedy curdles in scenes of her chattering on while Springer attempts to contact his dog via concentrated brain waves. The joke here, perhaps the only straight-up joke in the movie, seems to be that girlfriends are annoying.
As Springer, Plotnick mostly just has to take the weirdness his director subjects him to. He musters up a steady exasperation, usually tinged with a depressed acceptance that Springer’s lot is to be dressed down by strangers for no clear reason. It’s not evident from his performance whether the character’s life before the movie also was routinely wrong. One fine bit of tragicomedy involves a co-worker at his desk job asking “Hey, Dolph? Why do you keep coming here?” He flinches at that, as we all would—the moment is right out of any office anxiety dream. Less certain is the revelation afterward that Springer actually was fired from that job three months ago. From Plotnick’s dazed reaction, it’s impossible to tell if that is true—something that actually happened in Springer’s life and active memory—or if it’s just another of the acerbic unexplainables in which the schmo is steeped. Dispirtingly, he continues to show up at that job. Springer is an uncommonly passive character, one who rarely takes any meaningful action, and one you’re not expected to care much for. That makes 100 minutes in his company occasionally trying, and some of the Wrong stuff is more straight-up silly than, say, revealing of the human condition. But the film’s heady buzz is invigorating, and there are substantial pleasures—and laughs—to be found in all its real-life-just-gone-sour strangeness. Imagine your third grade homeroom teacher walking up to you and reading that last sentence aloud, and you’re starting to get the feel.
Written and directed by Quentin Dupieux. Starring Jack Plotnick, William Fichtner, Alexis Dziena, and Eric Judor.