On the DVD for News From Planet Mars, there is a quote from a critic referencing Zach Galifianakis. Even aside from the notion of whether Macaigne's performance evokes Galifianakis, it's an apt comparison because News feels like one of those American comedies (several of which Galifianakis starred in) that were so popular in the mid-2000s: a regular guy gets trapped in a situation with an increasingly destructive weirdo, only to find out that the weirdo might actually have some sort of insight or connection that will change the regular guy's life. Of course, we're almost into the 2020s, so "popular in the mid-2000s" is both a point of reference and a criticism of a fitfully funny movie that struggles to break free of a formula that feels a bit out of style.
Director Dominik Moll (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Gilles Marchand) has a deadpan style that serves the movie well. He places his characters in simple, almost static shots, with just enough room to visually evoke the white noise that hangs in the air as Philippe tries to process whatever new curveball Jerome has thrown at him. The film reads sort of like a comic strip, with punchlines that play perfectly off of Damiens' silently exasperated face. To this, Moll throws in little fantasy interludes, including the recurring appearance of Philippe's parents (Michel Aumont, Catherine Samie) from the afterlife, who offer sage advice, and sequences of Philippe in an astronaut's outfit slowly dropping down from space to examine his own incomprehensible life, as a peek into the increasing disconnect he feels between himself and the world around him.
These little character moments and dabbles in simple but effective visual spectacle work pretty well; less effective is the actual story, which ties together Gregoire's decision to become a vegetarian, and Jerome's crush on another woman he met in the psych ward, Chloe (Veerle Baetens), who shows up for dinner and, through a series of manipulations on Jerome's part, ends up not just staying in the house, but sleeping in Philippe's bed while Philippe stays on his own couch with Jerome. Before long, the film has set up a rivalry over the killing of chickens with Jerome, Gregoire, and Chloe on one side and Philippe on the other. Choosing vegetarianism as a focal point for this part of the story clearly serves a purpose for Moll -- the viewer is probably supposed to side against Philippe, especially after Gregoire does a school presentation that includes footage of chicks being tossed into a meat grinder -- but the approach is so aggressive (and obviously political for viewers outside the world of the film) that it ultimately becomes hard to side with anyone. Worse, the film proceeds to a climactic conclusion that then tosses the moral quagmire he's created aside, a gear-throw into reverse that will likely give viewers whiplash.
More importantly, this wishy-washy quality mostly ends up making the film feel toothless. In a crucial dramatic moment, Philippe and Chloe face off about the possibility that Jerome's life is limited, a dead end that is leaving him spiritually bankrupt. The only problem is that the film's alternative is a half-baked terrorist plot executed by a character the movie has illustrated can't even make vegetarian moussaka right, but who is committed to a principle. If Moll's argument is that Chloe is right about Philippe's future, then turning around and arguing that Chloe is also wrong comes off as a pulled punch, regardless of whether or not the viewer really agrees with what Jerome and Chloe are up to. News From Planet Mars is occasionally amusing, but for a film about expanding one's horizons, it feels awfully hobbled by its own unwillingness to be truly anarchic.
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