Contrary to popular opinion, most critics don’t go into a film hoping to hate it. Actually, we hope to love it. Probably no one knows quite so well as film critics that sense of joy that comes from seeing a really good film, must less a truly great one. So, it’s actually very hard to exit a movie with the assured knowledge that you’re going to write a bad review, not because you wanted to hate it, but because the film was just so damned hate-able.
Karl Mueller’s Netflix Original Rebirth is one hate-able film.
Things start off innocently enough. We meet Kyle (Fran Kranz), a perfectly decent dude in a not-so-decent corporate job, with a decent wife and a decent daughter, awash in a sea of decency. His life is turned around when he meets his old college buddy Zack (Adam Goldberg), who invites him to a weekend retreat called Rebirth to “relax and rejuvenate” before he rejoins the corporate zombie hordes.
Once there, Kyle falls into a bizarre world of new-age cult behavior in a run-down building from which there is apparently no exit (even though you can leave at any time). He rushes from one room to the next, desperately trying to figure out just what the hell is going on and what the hell he has done to deserve this.
You can see what Rebirth is going for. There’s definitely satire somewhere in there, though I’m not sure it’s entirely certain what it’s satirizing. If Rebirth has an underlying theme then it must be about modern self-help society, in which the cure for the “zombie-ism” of corporate and media culture is just as vacuous, dangerous, and controlling as the culture itself.
The film reworks elements of movies like Fight Club, attempting to tease about the nature of male bonding culture, but without ever actually criticizing it or following through on its own satire. There’s also underlying hostility, aggression, misogyny, offers of sexual gratification, promises of freedom, quips about the nature of reality…all are up for satire, in a smorgasbord of what is basically very spectacular bullshit without particular direction or meaning.
Rebirth has no idea what it’s doing. It has no discernible plot arc or, for that matter, a character to care about. Kyle might be our protagonist; we might feel his initial frustration with the constant, mind-numbing responses of the people at Rebirth, but after awhile his inability to understand things becomes more annoying than relatable. Goldberg’s wild-eyed Zack is a little more enjoyable to watch, but he’s absent for much of the film. And while actors as disparate as Harry Hamlin and Pat Healy stroll into and out of frame, their presences stop registering after the fifteenth time something weird and yet shockingly boring happens.
Despite those indications that this is all a satire, the film indulges itself in so much pseudo-intellectual pettifoggery that it loses whatever tenuous claim to humor it might have possessed. As Kyle shrieks “What is going on?!” for the umpteenth time, I found myself responding “I don’t care!”
It’s amazing how little this film made me care. Not just about Kyle, but about whatever Rebirth was really trying to accomplish. Perhaps that lack of clarity is part of its point, but it doesn’t make for a decent piece of entertainment. It doesn’t make for much of anything at all, actually. Its stylization is haphazard, its characterization confused. Every scene goes on for several minutes too long, the dialogue as interminable as the characters that deliver it. Whatever promise the film contains in its early scenes is wasted on confusing, roundabout threats of…something.
Rebirth is a messy, ugly, boring film, a film that smugly declares its own brilliance in every ill-lit, poorly structured frame. It’s a punishing film, a film that forces itself on the viewer, that batters and abuses just as poor Kyle is battered and abused. And while Kyle might not really be able to leave, the viewer, thank goodness, can.