Judging by his free-floating astronaut fantasies, Philippe Mars is not the kind of man they think he is at home (oh, no, no, no, he’s a rocket man!) and it will take an eccentric — and possibly homicidal — houseguest to bring him back round to find his footing in Dominik Moll’s melancholy mid-life crisis dramedy “News From Planet Mars.” Although not nearly as surreal as it sounds, this more out-there reunion between Moll and “With a Friend Like Harry” co-writer Gilles Marchand exhumes some of the odd dynamics of their earlier quasi-thriller (which earned four Cesar awards and more than $30 million dollars worldwide), but will have a harder time blasting off outside of Europe.
Being selected to premiere in competition at Berlin should give this French-Belgian co-production some mileage in its home countries (it’s set to open both on March 9), while raising interest in Germany and other like-minded markets. But even a few genuinely eccentric touches — mostly dream sequences involving Philippe wearing either a spacesuit or a gorilla mask — won’t be enough to spark Stateside interest, especially when one considers that star Francois Damiens’ even more gonzo, Golden Globe-nominated “The Brand New Testament” still doesn’t have U.S. distribution.
In the film’s dark-comedy terms, Damiens is the straight man in a world spiraling increasingly out of control. At first, it’s the little things that get to him, like politely asking a sore neighbor to pick up after his dog, then having to do it himself. Practically everyone in his life has anger management issues, but not Philippe, who goes about his routine in a daze, allowing others to exploit him at every turn: His TV reporter ex-wife (Lea Drucker) drops the kids off early because she’s got a big story in Brussels; his hyper-critical daughter Sarah (Jeanne Guittet) and newly vegetarian son Gregoire (Tom Rivoire) barely acknowledge their dad’s 49th birthday; and his IT company boss (Julien Sibre) knows Philippe has his hands full, but asks him to baby-sit problem colleague Jerome (Vincent Macaigne) anyway.
Via memorable roles in films such as “Two Friends” and “Eden,” the easily typecast Macaigne is quickly cementing his position as France’s answer to Zach Galifianakis — a somber, usually-bearded misfit with a tendency to behave in wild, unpredictable ways. Here, Moll imagines the actor as Philippe’s nutcase doppelganger, an irrepressible id-like figure whose spontaneous explosions of frustration and violence are the polar opposite of Philippe’s unflappable calm. Jerome carries a meat cleaver with him at all times, caressing its blade to calm himself in moments of extreme agitation (a strategy that most onlookers would agree is far more dangerous than sedative).
Before long, Philippe finds himself on the business end of Jerome’s butcher knife — a confrontation that costs him his ear and leaves him head-bandaged and, according to his unhelpful boss, looking like Vincent Van Gogh. Willing to forgive the workplace mishap as a big misunderstanding, Philippe accepts Jerome — and his psych-ward new g.f. Chloe (Veerie Baetens) — into his home, despite the fact that neither seems a particularly stable influence on his kids. Gregoire is especially drawn to Jerome’s problematic personality, and before long, the young vegetarian (who has already taken the defiant step of “liberating” all the frogs intended for dissection in biology class) is planning to blow up a nearby poultry-processing plant.
By this point, a comedy that began firmly grounded in recognizable behavior has veered into almost cartoonish territory, complete with appearances by Philippe’s dead parents (Michel Aumont and Catherine Samie), who laugh at the fact his kids have reached that rebellious age. And yet, with the exception of a racy text message in which one of Gregoire’s 12-year-old classmates suggests they engage in a very naughty extracurricular activity, there’s nothing here that wouldn’t be right at home in a classic Disney family movie — the sort where the Damiens role would have been played by Dean Jones.
Well, there is the question of Philippe’s artistic sister Xanae (Olivia Cote), whose gallery opening includes explicit paintings of their dead parents, but generally speaking, “News From Planet Mars” manages to be sweet, at least when compared to the calculatedly sinister undertones “With a Friend Like Harry.” Drifting away like “Gravity’s” Sandra Bullock in his own daydreams, Philippe doesn’t even realize he needs to fight for his family until Jerome comes along and shows him, and though the kooky finale (in which Philippe climbs back into an explosives-loaded car to rescue Gregoire’s frogs) feels entirely too forced and not at all satisfactory, the resolution finally reveals the sentiment Moll was shooting for all along.
After all, Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise the kids. In fact it’s cold as hell. And for all its weird observations and curious side characters, Moll’s hyper-stylized outing (whose eccentricity is compounded by its extreme-widescreen visual format) is ultimately about a man retrieving his place within the nuclear family. And while the funky, retro-sounding score is a clue that he might have had Elton John’s “Rocket Man” in mind, the movie instead ends with the classic “Come Take a Trip in My Airship.” Either way, the message is clear by the end of the movie: “Earth to Mars. You’re needed here.”