A suicidal IT specialist and a blind archivist help a dying woman find the child she gave up for adoption in French director Albert Dupontel’s “Adieu les cons,” rechristened “Bye Bye Morons” in the U.S. (though “So Long, Suckers!” would’ve probably be a better translation). If you’re wondering how the iconoclastic Dupontel would incorporate such a trio into a comedy, drama, satire or farce, therein lies the issue: “Bye Bye Morons” tries to be all four of those genres at once, often to its detriment.
The visually inventive helmer, whose films are frequently based on dark and provocative ideas, again uses his anti-authoritarian streak as a blunt instrument, creating a frenetic and labored work that’s long on half-explored themes and short on laughs. That said, Gallic audiences thoroughly embraced the film, which opened days after the first COVID-19 curfew shut down a handful of major French cities in October 2020. Amid such exceptional circumstances, the film became a runaway box office success, going on to win seven César awards last March, including best picture and director.
Much like Dupontel’s previous directing effort, 2017’s heart-wrenching World War I epic, “See You Up There,” “Bye Bye Morons” centers around two strangers forced together by cruel circumstances. Here, fortysomething hairdresser Suze Trappet (“Benedetta” star Virginie Efira) receives the bad news that years of inhaling chemical-laden hairspray has given her a terminal auto-immune disease. With time running out, she decides to track down the son she gave up for adoption when she was 15 years old. An administrative services functionary barely acknowledges her presence while predicting that her search will be difficult because her file is not digitized.
Meanwhile, in an adjacent office, childless, work-obsessed IT specialist JB Cuchas (Dupontel) is preparing to end it all with a shotgun blast after being heartlessly pushed aside by his weaselly boss to make room for younger hires. When he botches his suicide attempt and instead shoots a co-worker, Suze makes JB a deal: She’ll confirm to the cops that the shooting was an accident if he helps find her son.
In interviews, Dupontel has often cited Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” with its similar interest in the dehumanizing effects of a soulless bureaucracy, as a professional touchstone. So it’s no stretch to consider “Bye Bye Morons” to be Dupontel’s idiosyncratic riff on that film. Not only does the former Monty Python member appear in a cameo (his third such appearance in a Dupontel film), but no fewer than three characters share names with those in “Brazil.” And yet, unlike Gilliam’s masterpiece, Dupontel brings an unwieldy mix of absurdism and sentimentality to his critique of our technology dependance, mistrust of authority and loss of purpose in the modern world.
The film’s overworked script, credited to Dupontel, Marcia Romano and Xavier Nemo, is also a catalogue of modern-day grievances. Authority figures are too incompetent to correctly pronounce Suze or JB’s names, the police are clueless and trigger happy, and oblivious public servants have no idea where public records are stored. There are so many morons for Suze and JB to say goodbye to that Dupontel often seems to be taking random potshots at easy targets rather than shining a satirical spotlight on a particular social injustice. At least those ignorant public servants introduce Suze and JB to Mr. Blin (Nicolas Marié), a blind archivist hired to fill a diversity quota. When the cops burst into Blin’s record-keeping vault looking for JB, he escapes his paperwork-stuffed prison and joins Suze’s quest.
As a director, Dupontel has never been afraid of a little theatricality to provoke a tear or to shock, whether it’s a character executing a perfect swan dive off a high balcony in “See You Up There” or Dupontel biting the head off a bird in his directing debut, 1996’s pitch-black provocation “Bernie.” Here DP Alexis Kavyrchine’s saturated colors give production designer Carlos Conti’s sets the unreal sheen of an urban fable allowing Dupontel the freedom to explore storytelling extremes. But unlike fellow French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who often finds the perfect balance, as in 2001’s “Amélie,” Dupontel pushes things to the edge of credibility and beyond.
Coincidences and story conveniences pile up during Suze’s increasingly desperate search, which is ably assisted by JB’s ever-present laptop that can seemingly perform any task anywhere in France. In just a few keystrokes, he activates the fire alarm and controls the elevators at a high-rise office building so Suze can deliver a tender message to her son (Bastien Ughetto) which, ironically, gives JB the same power that the film is railing against. Dupontel’s melodramatic denouement is meant to pack a heartbreaking wallop, as two victims of modern society take the only way out. Instead it plays as empty pop nihilism and a reminder of the responsibility a filmmaker faces when making suicidal tendencies a comedic character’s defining trait.
César-nominated Efira keeps her performance grounded despite the absurdity surrounding her, providing the film with an effective core. Dupontel, with his frazzled hair and hangdog middle-management visage, is terrific as the melancholy singleton whose commonality with Suze’s son is a stretch but serves to further connect the two potential lovebirds. Marié, who seems to be channeling Dr. Strangelove, maintains his dignity despite the uncomfortably clichéd notion of a blind person getting easy laughs by bumping into walls. The scene where Suze humors Blin by pretending his outdated memories of the city are still accurate is especially sweet. Standout supporting players include Jackie Berroyer as Suze’s Alzheimer’s-stricken obstetrician and Philippe Uchan has JB’s bumbling boss.
There is another character in “Bye Bye Morons” whose name is a cheeky in-joke. A brief mention of a Francine Weber is a clear tip of the chapeau to French filmmaker Francis Veber (“Le Dîner de Cons,” “The Toy”). Both are beloved French farces, whereas Dupontel’s film, which doesn’t lack for ambition, only focus, fails to live up to the Veber touch or to the dystopian sci-fi classic that has served as its creator’s longtime inspiration.