A waspish music critic is fired from his prominent newspaper job and seeks revenge against his boss in Josef Hader’s visually accomplished but unmemorable directing debut, “Wild Mouse.” Taking a serio-comic approach to the usual story of middle-class and middle-age crisis, Hader — an actor and cabaret artist who also wrote and plays the lead — means to make his characters’ desperation earnest as well as faintly ridiculous, though the emphasis is decidedly on the latter. With personalities never going deeper than what’s expected in a mild comic sketch, and believability held in that limbo space reserved for exaggerated comedies, the film has little chance outside German-speaking territories.
The opening scene promises more than what’s ultimately delivered, as Georg (Hader) and a colleague discuss Anton Bruckner and the White Stripes while walking through a large office, the camera elegantly gliding before them through the maze-like spaces. Unfortunately, nowhere else is there a similar air of intriguing, expectant uncertainty. Georg’s boss (Jörg Hartmann) tells him he costs the paper too much money, and so he’s fired; the reaction is swift and nasty, in keeping with the pompous critic’s reputation for peevishness.
The loss of status is such a humiliating blow that he’s unable to tell his wife Johanna (Pia Hierzegger), who the same evening unintentionally calls into question his manhood by insinuating that his sperm have grown sluggish in his old age — perhaps that’s the reason she hasn’t been able to get pregnant for the past three years. Although Johanna is a shrink, communication obviously isn’t the couple’s strong suit, but then again, as her gay patient Sebastian (Denis Moschitto) rightly tells her, she’s a lousy therapist anyway. With no office to go to, but needing to maintain the appearance of work, Georg wanders Vienna’s large park, the Prater; one night, in a fit of petty vengeance, he carves a large scratch in his ex-boss’s sports car.
The next morning he’s on a kiddie train through the Prater making small talk with the driver, Erich (Georg Friedrich), who’s later fired for skimming off ticket payments. Georg realizes Erich was the classmate who used to beat him up in school, but nevertheless, since the down-on-his-luck critic apparently has no friends (nor does his wife), the unlikely duo hang out together. Erich’s Romanian girlfriend Nicoletta (Crina Semciuc, “Selfie”) speaks no German, Erich speaks no Romanian, but Georg can communicate with the lonely woman in Italian — unfortunately, Hader doesn’t know what to do with this potentially interesting side plot and it goes nowhere.
Meanwhile, Erich asks him for a loan so he can take over a roller-coaster ride in the Prater, called Wild Mouse (hence the title, though the mouse is clearly a description of Georg himself). Johanna still thinks her husband goes to the office each day, but when Georg’s former boss realizes he’s become the target of the critic’s destructive maliciousness, he poses as a potential client, revealing that Georg hasn’t been at work recently. Everything is unravelling for husband and wife, fueling his sense of impotent desperation and her dissatisfaction with life.
As these tempests in teapots play out, radio and television broadcasts speak exclusively of refugees, migrants, and the Islamic State. Clearly Hader wants audiences to realize that while the world struggles with issues of life-changing significance, the self-important bourgeoisie bemoan minor slings against their inflated egos. It’s an important point to make, but one “Wild Mouse” fails to satisfyingly drive home; it also calls into question why we’re bothering to spend time with these shallow people. Presumably the answer is that they’re designed to make us laugh, yet the humor is the sort that sees guffaws in quirky people being pushed to the edge, and most audiences will find it slightly cruel and rather weak.
Not helping matters is that there’s nothing believable about Georg and Johanna as a couple. Hader and Hierzegger have worked together before (including “The Bone Man”), so more chemistry could have been expected, though the fault lies mostly with how the characters are constructed rather than the actors. The same can be said for Johanna’s needy patient Sebastian, who weaves in and out of the plot, becoming increasingly problematic: A scene where he tells Johanna she’s the first woman he’s been attracted to, because she’s manly, is utterly oblivious to the insensitive ways it can be read.
In general the film is attractively shot, especially in scenes that find Georg alone, at the back of a concert hall, wracked with anger, or toward the end, in a secluded snow-covered forest. But some set-ups simply fall flat, as when Georg tells Johanna he’s not sure he wants to be a father at his age; the revelation shatters the marriage, but neither the way its shot nor edited allow for any emotional impact. The ending too leaves more of a shrug than a sense of release.