The pitfall of a tantalizing set-up is that it requires a sterling payoff to match — a recipe for disappointment born out by “Rebirth,” whose premise-establishing early passages lead only to underwhelming revelations. Playing like a cross between multiple David Fincher efforts, all with a dash of anti-Scientology and meta-film-criticism elements thrown in for bewildering measure, this story about a man on a perplexing journey of self-discovery is best when keeping its audience in the disorienting dark, far away from the more pedestrian truths that ultimately come to light.
Writer-director Karl Mueller’s story opens with a montage of Kyle’s (Fran Kranz) monotonous routine: dawn treadmilling; breakfast with his young daughter; commuting to the bank where he’s employed as a social-media chief (writing fake millennial tweets touting their mortgage business); and coming home to his wife Mary (Kat Foster). That dreary schedule is interrupted by the unexpected arrival at work of Zack (Adam Goldberg), an old college friend whose bushy beard, arm tats and motor-mouthed demeanor signify that he’s far from a kindred office drone.
Apparently still clinging to a juvenile manifesto the two wrote in college — whose three regulations were, “F— the Man,” “Keep It Real” and “Don’t Be Boring” — Zack convinces Kyle to join him at a mysterious weekend event known as Rebirth, which Internet promos show to be a creepy self-help program pushed by cheery drones in front of blue-sky digital backgrounds and logos. The similarity between these clips and the types of Scientology videos featured in Alex Gibney’s non-fiction exposé “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” are difficult to miss, and those links only grow stronger as Kyle makes his way through his bizarre day.
From a hotel room bathroom where clues are revealed on mirrors by steam, to a shuttle bus full of silent men in blindfolds, to a dank basement where a burly speaker riles up attendees with his tale of escaping the outside “zombie world,” then lays out the rules that govern their retreat, and finally leads them in a “We are not a cult!” chant, Kyle finds himself on a decidedly baffling odyssey. Charting its protagonist’s progress through a sprawling graffiti-adorned house whose rooms contain confrontational or seductive figures, Mueller’s film strikes a tantalizing chord situated between Fincher’s “The Game” and “Fight Club.” Meanwhile, his and cinematographer Benji Bakshi’s sleek long-take lensing — highlighting both the creepiness of shiny surfaces, and the menace of grimy blackness — also recalls “Birdman,” as does its score of anxious drumming.
Encountering a hostile group-therapy leader (Steve Agee) and a guru (Harry Hamlin) surrounded by libidinous women in a pillow-filled chamber, and repeatedly confronting a short-haired blonde in a suit (Nicky Whelan) who answers queries with even more exasperating questions, Kyle proves alternately intimidated and tempted by his fellow Rebirth-ers’ talk about liberation. The dawning problem with “Rebirth” isn’t a lack of inhibition, however, as much as a third act that features only dull bombshells about this underground system of renewal, whose malevolent purpose is italicized by its out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new name.
Goldberg’s cocky, crazy-eyed energy as the Tyler Durden-esque Zack gives the action a significant boost in the personality department, especially since Kranz’s Kyle is imagined as a bland archetype: the slumbering cipher who’s awakened to the conformist reality of the world, and his condition. Kranz’s protagonist begins as a dull center of attention, and then — once his head begins spinning thanks to the beguiling games — transforms into an unhinged irritant, and the actor’s performance is increasingly one of off-putting screaminess.
A crucial Rebirth dictate is “No Spoilers,” which when coupled with the idea that its participants shouldn’t be spectators akin to anonymous Internet haters, suggests that Mueller intends the film as a self-conscious commentary on online movie culture. That thread, alas, is never sufficiently developed — and undermined by the fact that no one would dare spoil the film’s surprises, because doing so would expose the proceedings’ disappointing climactic emptiness.