The latest surreal confectionary from supreme stylist Jean-Pierre Jeunet is occasionally poignant but not as wonderfully whimsical as intended.
French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s collaborations with Marc Caro – DELICATESSEN (1991) and CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (1995) – established him as a purveyor of visually arresting cinefantastique that was occasionally deficient in drama. Since going solo with his Hollywood effort, ALIEN RESURRECTION (1997), Jeunet has moved away from outright fantasy, but his imaginative visual sense remains intact, providing a view of the world that looks fantastical even when the situations are recognizable occurrences; e.g., the pet goldfish that is released into a river in AMELIE (2001) – and makes eye contact with its former owner before disappearing beneath the rippling surface. Jeunet’s latest effort, MICMACS, continues somewhat in this vein, often to good effect but without the consistent charm of AMELIE. Art house audiences and fans of the director’s visual style will find much to amuse them, but more general audiences will not find the story fully engaging.
MICMACS (fully titled Micmacs a Tire-Larigot [“Non-Stop Madness”] in its native France) follows a young boy who is orphaned when his father fails to disarm a land mine; later, as a young man, Bazil (played by Dany Boon) is hit in the head by a stray bullet, losing his apartment and his job. Living on the streets, he hooks up with a group of social outcasts and misfits living in an underground hovel carved out of a garbage dump, where they craft amazing tools and sculptures crafted from discarded junk. While out collecting some raw materials, Bazil stumbles upon the offices for two arms manufacturers: one responsible for the land mine that killed his father; the other responsible for the bullet still nestled close to his brain. Appalled by one manufacturer’s casual indifference to the human toll of his product, Bazil decides to bring both corporations to their knees, with the help of his motley friends.
MICMACS is at most borderline cinefantastique. Trading romance for satire, Jeunet uses the occasional surreal flourish (such as a character imagining the orchestra playing the dramatic music we in the audience are hearing) to juice up a story that is occasionally poignant but not quite as wonderfully whimsical as it is clearly meant to be. On some level, Jenuet intends MICMACS as a satire about the powerless getting back at the powerful, about bringing some kind of accountability to people who become rich off the misfortune of others. This lends some genuinely touching pathos, as when a tear trickles down Bazil’s cheek while he listens to an arms manufacturer deliver a jokey, self-congratulatory speech at a ritzy party, both figuratively and literally miles away from the impact of his product.
More often than not, however, MICMACS is more spoof than satire, a sort of playful French variation on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, with Bazil and buddies using subterfuge to outwit their more powerful opponents. It’s as if the sub-plot from AMELIE (in which she drives a pompous boss crazy by sneaking into his home and rearranging furniture, changing locks, etc) had been expanded into the main narrative. The result feels a bit like Dashiel Hammett’s novel Red Harvest (by way of YOJIMBO and FISTFUL OF DOLLARS), as if it had been staged by the Marx Brothers.
The script strings together zany episodes like set-pieces from a silent comedy; unfortunately, these amusing capers are only so amusing. Jeunet can be funny, but the explosive slapstick seen here simply isn’t his forte. Unlike Harold Lloyd’s SAFETY LAST, the stunts and gags don’t build to a climax with an outrageous series of “can you top this” escalations; instead, they hit a plateau and proceed a steady altitude until a much-needed third act complication finally adds a small dose of suspense.
Meanwhile, there are occasional hints of romance between Bazil and a contortionist girl; they’re a nice touch, but they’re squeezed in like glue between the cracks in the comedy hijinx. With the focus firmly on the revenge caper, the lead characters are sketched too thinly to fully warm our hearts. Bazil is given little beyond the motivation of his back story – which is enough to make us want to like him and see him succeed, but not enough to make him tremendously compelling. In fact, the script can’t even be bothered to resolve his central problem: we’re told that the bullet wedged near his brain could kill him at any time, but this worrisome problem is simply forgotten – without so much as a deus ex machina.
Thankfully, Dany Boon’s sad-sack performance goes a little way toward helping us overlook the writing deficiencies, which don’t affect the rest of the cast as much. Neither are the supporting characters sketched in great detail, but the rag-tag gang of charming eccentrics hold their own on screen because they needn’t carry any emotional weight; their individual quirks (talking in cliches, accurately sizing up up distance and dimensions at a glance) are more than enough.
The story ends with a clever twist, and everyone pretty much gets what they deserve, but the effect is slightly hollow. To its credit, MICMACS mixes in some seriously dangerous characters without feeling as if they wandered in from another movie, but the overall mixture of pathos and humor never hits critical mass. With its little guy taking on big business, MICMACS feels a bit like a fictionalized version of a Michael Moore documentary; unfortunately, even with his superior visual skills, Jeunet cannot match the laughs and the tears of BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE.
MICMACS (Micmacs a tire-lairgot [“Non-stop Madness”], 2009). Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Written by Jean-Pierre Jeanet & Guillaume Laurant; dialogue by Laurant. Cast: Dany Boon, Andre Dussollier, Nicolas Marie, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Yolande Moreau, Julie Ferrie, Omar Sy, and Dominique Pinon.