Swampflix’s collective pick for the best movie of 2020 was an absurdist horror comedy about a killer deerskin jacket. Deerskin felt like a career high for notorious French prankster Quentin Dupieux, especially in its sharp self-satirical humor about the macho narcissism of filmmaking as an artform. The follow-up to that violently silly triumph finds Dupieux backsliding into his more typical comedies about Nothing. Dupieux’s calling-card feature Rubber—the one about the killer, telekinetic car tire—announced him as an absurdist whose humor was rooted in the total absence of reason or purpose, one of the cruelest jokes of life. Mandibles fits snugly in that “no reason” comedy paradigm, the exact thing Dupieux is known to excel at. It’s only a disappointment in that Deerskin felt like a turn signal for a new direction in his career. On its own terms, it’s a total hoot.
In Mandibles, two bumbling criminals adopt & corrupt a gigantic housefly so it can join them in acts of petty theft. That’s it. The entire film is about two dumb buds being dumb buds who now have a weird pet. One is a beach bum; the other works eventless shifts at his parents’ highway gas station. The unexpected discovery of the housefly seems like a free ticket out of the lifelong buddies’ lifelong rut, but the resulting journey essentially amounts to a couple sleepovers & pool parties. They’re two overgrown man-children who inevitably fuck up everything they touch, recalling the adorable doofuses of mainstream Farrelly Brothers comedies of yesteryear. That retro humor is underlined in the film’s 1990s set design & costuming, which includes an overload of pink denim, cassette tapes, and Lisa Frank unicorn imagery. The only stray element that elevates the film above its Dumb and Dumberest surface charms is Dominique – their adopted mutant fly.
Quentin Dupieux totally gets away with reverting to autopilot for this “no reason” comedy, solely on the virtue of its jokes being very funny. I laughed a lot, I was surprised by every new get-rich-goofily scheme, and it was all over in less than 80 minutes. It’s hard to complain about that. It’s also hard to dismiss the novelty that Dominique brings to screen, rendered in a combination of CGI & traditional puppetry. I can’t claim I’ve never seen anything like her before, at least not after the giant flea vignette in 2016’s Tale of Tales. Still, every inane buzzing sound & insectoid head tilt Dominique delivers as the unlikely straight-man in the central comedy trio earns its laughs. I’d like to see a post-Deerskin Dupieux evolve into a more purposeful satirist with pointed things to say about life and art. His career-guiding thesis that life and art are ultimately meaningless rings true no matter how many times he repeats it, though, and this time he flavors that repetition with a cool-looking creature. That’s enough for me.