You couldn’t blame somebody for expressing puzzlement over the fact that Bye Bye Morons (2020), a zany, lightweight comedy, managed to win seven César Awards. Perhaps the French love their farces more than most, but it’s hard to imagine a world in which this was the best French film of 2020. It is unrelentingly goofy and highly sentimental, in the Adam Sandler tradition, so what is it that so enchanted the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma?
When you realise that it features the motherlode of all tragic circumstances; the awards attention starts to make more sense. It begins with a scene in which hairdresser Suze Trappet (Virginie Efira) learns that she is terminally ill and will die soon. Predictably, she reacts to this news with shock and despair, before deciding that she needs to make good use of what little time she has left. She is haunted by the fact that she was forced to give up the child that she gave birth to as a teenager, and is desperate to track down her now-adult son. She enlists the help of Jean-Baptiste Cuchas (Albert Dupontel), a bureaucrat who ends up seriously injuring another man when he tries to commit suicide at work. He becomes personally invested in Trappet’s quest and helps her to link up with people who were involved in the adoption process.
This is one of those wacky comedies that also wants you to know that it’s about something. It touches on the dangers of anti-social behaviour, police brutality, society’s abandonment of the disabled, suicide and depression. In most of these cases, it quickly and directly tells you that all of these things are bad, before abruptly moving on to the next problem. Nothing is explored too deeply and everything is simultaneously too vague and too obvious. One could forgive the bluntness of the message delivery if Dupontel had fresh, original insights to make about the subjects that he tackles. It is almost like watching one of Russell Brand’s documentaries, where it seems like the concept of inequality and political corruption has just occurred to him. It is almost insulting to see a piece of art that thinks that its audience is not observant enough to understand that it is bad when police officers abuse blind men. Sincerity will only get you so far.
You would think that laughter would drown out groans over the cheesier moments in the script. This means that it is so disappointing to discover that this is a maudlin weepie at heart. The screenwriters seem to be aware of the fact that they are laying it on a little thick with all of the clichés, so it seems odd that they go straight for earnestness and don’t include any self reflexive touches. The film immediately collapses under the weight of its own ambitions because the audience doesn’t have time to take any of the serious elements of the story to heart.
It is rare that people complain about a comedy being too short, but Bye Bye Morons wants to say and do so much that 88 minutes doesn’t feel like an adequate running time. The pacing is completely off, as the film races through sequences that should have emotional weight, such as Trappet’s eventual discovery of her son. It is consistently fast-paced, and that pacing might have worked if the jokes had been delivered at a rapid fire pace and individual plot threads hadn’t been of much importance. The jokes in Bye Bye Morons are not knee-slappers and they aren’t funny enough to distract you from the slapdash nature of the film’s construction. One of the most notable gags is centred around the idea that people can’t correctly pronounce Trappet’s surname. We hear them saying, “Trapp-ee, Trappo, Trappa” and then Dupontel will cut to a seething Efira, who expresses her dissatisfaction through nostril flares. It ends up being a lazy joke that isn’t pulled off with any special verve or dynamism. When that is the best that the joke writers could do, you know that you’re in trouble.
As a director, Dupontel is also overfond of including hallucinogenic dream sequences that are presumably meant to make exposition dumps feel less tedious. He’s a big fan of spinning camera movements, extreme zooms and following shots. Again and again, the camera will spin around Trappet’s head at a rapid speed. At first, this seems to be a fun effect that injects some new energy into scenes that could have conveyed information in a more conventional, safe manner. When Dupontel uses it several more times, it begins to feel like a crutch. The stylistic flourishes would be impressive if they served a purpose. With Dupontel, it seems like he didn’t consider intention or purpose, he just made bold stylistic choices for the hell of it.
The film only really hits its stride when the camera moves away from humans and focuses on the semi-futuristic version of France that serves as its setting. It is imagined as a bright, colourful, terrifyingly modern world. They do go a little too far in making the point that technology is a force for evil and stops people from making meaningful connections. This is representative of the filmmakers’ general inability to avoid gilding the lily. They just can’t leave a good thing alone – they have to take things too far.
Perhaps all of those César Awards should have been handed off to a more deserving recipient. When you consider the fact that this was up against Emmanuel Mouret’s Love Affair(s) (2020), a sensitive, penetrating study of several dysfunctional relationships, it seems funny that anybody could find real value in the shallow, glib outlook that Bye Bye Morons takes.
Bye Bye Morons is in cinemas and exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from 23 July, 2021.