In the opening scene of Rubber, a cop looks directly into the camera and stares at the audience. Then he begins to ask a series of movie-related questions, each as idiotic as the one before: Why was E.T. brown? Why'd Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw get together in Love Story? Why did the president get his cap peeled in JFK?
While it initially seems like the cop is addressing us, the audience, it turns out he's talking to a group of binocular-holding bystanders. Over the course of writer/director Quentin Dupieux's gutsy yet tedious film about a blood-thirsty, telekinetic tire named Robert, they come to represent the mainstream American moviegoer. On the surface, Rubber seems like an homage to Roger Corman B-movies, but as it progresses — breaking the fourth wall and indulging in the type of incongruent surrealism that is found in the most stereotypical art films — it becomes apparent that it is something else: a piece of modern-day Dada. And for these reasons, viewers will find it difficult to fully invest in Rubber.
But Rubber is not a bad movie. When I heard about the killer tire, I figured it would be akin to Stephen King's 1986 cocaine-fueled bomb, Maximum Overdrive, whose killer trucks had the potential to be awesome but, in the end, sucked on toast. But whereas Maximum Overdrive's failures were due to the film's lack of delivering the gory and goofy goods, Rubber fails because it's so emotionally distant.
Reminiscent of French New Wave filmmaker Jean Luc Godard's work in the late '60s, Rubber is, like a lot of New Wave work, less concerned with engaging the viewer and more concerned with breaking the narrative norm. Dupieux doesn't seek to help the audience emotionally connect with his character, who comes to life, falls in love, and makes things explode with his mind. Although the scene when Robert visits a burning tire yard is oddly moving, Dupieux is preoccupied with dismantling the language of film and upending expectations. Though some film nerds may blow a collective load because of Dupieux's clever use of techniques, it usually turns off movie goers when a smug director purposefully goes into territory meant to frustrate them.
To make matters worse, Dupieux's lowly opinion of mainstream audiences, while relatively on the mark, is that we are impatient, drooling fuckballs. While Robert gets his Scanners on, the audience within the film makes many of the same sort of inane statements that you might overhear in the theater today: "Is the tire going to get laid?" Or, "Speed up the action."
As the movie drew to a close, I kept thinking of Louis C.K.'s Pootie Tang. Although that film was only 80 minutes long, it was padded with overlong transitions, music-video interludes, and scenes that should have been trimmed. There are many scenes in Rubber that feel overlong and self-indulgent, even at a lean 82 minutes. As a short film, Rubber may have been amazing, but as a full-length feature, it tends to feel like a clever, yet empty, experiment.
In the end, Rubber is a modern example of Dadaism that cinephiles may appreciate for its self-awareness and Dupieux's desire to ignore the conventions of film. As for those looking for a crazy-ass story about a killer tire, you'll be highly annoyed.