REVIEW: Whimsical Micmacs Not as Ingenious as it Thinks
In the hands of filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whimsy is practically an automatic assault weapon. That doesn't mean his pictures aren't sometimes inspired. At their best -- as with A Very Long Engagement (2004) or the The City of Lost Children (1995) -- they can be wondrous, otherworldly mechanical inventions, the kind of dark, glittering things Jules Verne might have dreamed up if he'd fallen asleep watching Mulholland Dr.
But when Jeunet follows his squishy-cute impulses, they lead to frighteningly adorable horrors like the 2001 mega Eurohit Amélie. And while his latest, the revenge fantasy Micmacs, didn't drive me to crazed, wanton garden-gnome vandalism -- as Amélie nearly did -- its twee, not-so-grand vision left me considerably undercharmed. In Micmacs, a mild-mannered video-store clerk named Bazil (Dany Boon) becomes even more mild-mannered when he's struck by a bullet that lodges permanently in his brain. Years earlier, when he was just a boy, his father was killed in an explosion in Morocco. As it turns out -- because crazy coincidences are Jeunet's trademark -- the bullet that nearly killed Bazil and the mine that did kill his father were made by two rival weapons manufacturers, and their Gotham City-style headquarters are right across the street from one another.
Bazil, jobless and homeless after his accident, falls in with a merry band of scavengers who live in a junkyard wonderland, fashioning whatever they need (and plenty of fun stuff they don't need) from the world's discards. Each member of this scrappy outfit has a specific skill, sometimes of questionable usefulness: There's Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), the de facto mom, who does all the cooking and all the mothering; Buster (Dominique Pinon), who in a former life was a world-record-holding human cannonball; and Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), a winsome contortionist who, with her wide, unblinking eyes, looks a little like Giuletta Masina (though Masina would never get her big entrance coiled up in a refrigerator).
Putting their junkyard resourcefulness to work, Bazil and his makeshift family hatch a plan to bring down the weapons executives responsible for the bullet in Bazil's head and the device that killed his father. (They're played, as reasonably believable cartoons of corporate evil, by André Dussolier and Nicolas Marié.) That's an excuse for Jeunet -- who wrote the script with Guillaume Laurant, from a story by Laurant -- to launch into a plot that's excessively complicated without being particularly ingenious. Micmacs -- and we're never told, incidentally, exactly who or what a "Micmac" might be -- is at first mildly intriguing, although it's not long before numbing tedium sets in.
That's a drag, because Micmacs does have moments of considerable charm, and it gives Jeunet plenty of chances to showcase his love of intricate details. The junkyard treasure cave is filled with rusted-out steampunky wonders. Jeunet and production designer Aline Bonetto come up with some delightful Rube Goldberg-style contraptions, one of which features a mechanical dancing mouse, with clothespin feet, in a ballerina costume. There are some affectionate nods to Chaplin, and a few silly-clever sight gags: Bazil, roofbound as he spies on his two arms-dealing nemeses, takes a whiz down a drainpipe, and a woman standing on the pavement below with her dog marvels at the lake-sized puddle of pee forming around little Fido.
That's a ridiculous little throwaway moment. But Jeunet is at his best when he's simply throwing it away. Micmacs, shot by Tetsuo Nagata, has a handsome, sepia-toned, antique-postcard glow. And yet Jeunet allows, or encourages, his actors to mug incessantly (Moreau is the worst offender). Nearly everyone, and everything, in Micmacs is at one point or another guilty of trying too hard. Boon is appealing enough, at least as appealing as any actor can be when he's playing a character who stands around with a perpetual "Who, me?" look.
But the biggest problem with Micmacs is that Jeunet keeps the gears going overtime to prove that his little dollhouse of a story is really working in the service of something greater: This isn't just a movie; it's an anti-war statement. As such statements go, Micmacs is no more eloquent or complex than those dumb "War is bad for children and other living things" bumper stickers. Jeunet clearly put a lot of care and tinkering into this mechanized novelty; what he can't see is that there's really nothing novel about it at all.