Cute is what he aims for

Pub date June 1, 2010
SectionFilm Features

FILM Cutie pie. Kissy face. Snuggle bunny. Aren’t you just the sweetest thing ever?

The above pull quote will likely not be showing up in Sony Classics’
ads for Micmacs. Nonetheless, an urge to baby-talk at the screen underlines what is wrong with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s new film: it is like a precocious child all too aware how to work a room, reprising adorable past behaviors with pushy determination and no remaining spontaneity whatsoever. There will be cooing. There will be clucking. But there will also a few viewers rolling their eyes, thinking "This kid rides my last nerve."

It’s easy to understand why Jeunet’s movies are so beloved, doubtless by many previously allergic to subtitles. (Of course, few filmmakers need dialogue less.) They are eye-candy, and brain-candy too: fantastical, hyper, exotic, appealing to the child within but with dark streaks, byzantine of plot yet requiring no close narrative attention at all. The artistry and craftsmanship are unmissable, no ingenious design or whimsical detail left unemphasized. You can detect influences — Chaplin, Jacques Tati, Jan Svankmajer — but the unified vision is distinctively his.

Actually it was his and codirector Marc Caro’s, through 1995’s The City of Lost Children. That uneven but impressive fantasy greatly expanded on the template introduced by their early shorts and by 1991’s Delicatessen, a perfectly self-contained first feature contraption, a live-action cartoon of the genially macabre and puckishly romantic.

These were cult films, albeit big cult films. The point at which Jeunet supersized — in both popularity and in turning a few stomachs — was his first movie entirely without Caro, plucky-as-fuck Amélie (2001). It was the world’s most ornate cuckoo clock, an entire football field of dominoes falling toward an inevitable je t’aime. Whether it is also a testament to the perils of excessive storyboarding can be argued — but say that and it’s as if you had just kicked a dog. Or "an elf with big eyes," as Jeunet described his "perfect actress" Audrey Tautou. A Very Long Engagement (2004) suggested the limits of what they could do for each other, but at least it was a step away from circusy cuteness and contrivance.

Into which puddle of cuddle Micmacs leaps back with a vengeance. It took Jeunet five years to painstakingly construct a vehicle he could repeat himself this completely? Our hero Bazil (Dany Boon) is a lovable misfit who lost his father to an Algerian landmine, then loses his own job and home when he’s brain-injured by a stray bullet. He falls in with a crazy coterie of lovable misfits who live underground, make wacky contraptions from junk, and each have their own special, not-quite-super "power." (His love interest is dubbed Elastic Girl — though it’s Julie Ferrier’s facial contortions that really alarm.) It’s like Santa’s Gallic Toyshop, populated by chimney-sweeps and organ grinders and mimes. They help him wreak elaborate, fanciful revenge on the greedy arms manufacturers (André Dussollier, Nicolas Marié) behind his
misfortunes, as well as various human rights-y global ones.

So there’s a message here, couched in fun. But the effect is rather like a birthday clown begging funds for Darfur — or Robert Benigni’s dreaded Life is Beautiful (1997), good intentions coming off a bit hubristic, even distasteful. (It doesn’t help that the sole black characters here feel like racial caricatures dropped into Cirque du Soleil.) Of course the film’s all-important design aspects are impeccably wrought. And using old Max Steiner orchestral excerpts was a terrific idea — one of Micmacs‘ few simple, genuinely charming ones.

The actors make funny faces, some (like Boon, Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon, and the villains) amusingly, others laboriously. They’re just props in a series of Rube Goldbergian set-pieces that are showy, intricate yet somehow stale. If Amelie‘s pursuit of charm could feel incongruously elephantine — like a space shuttle chasing a feather — Micmacs likewise exerts way too much effort just trying to be cute and funny. It’s so overpoweringly delighted with itself that you don’t need to be.

MICMACS opens Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters.