If Terry Gilliam and Charlie Chaplin had had a love child in France, he might have grown up to be Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The director's latest film, Micmacs, is another Gilliamesque mishmash of complicated but retro gadgets, stylized environments, sight gags, and fey little stories-within-stories, all acted in an exaggerated style that hasn't been seen—or missed—much since the silent era. I liked that combination in Amélie, a piquant little piece about making the most of your life, and I loved it in A Very Long Engagement, where the antic tone was leavened by the gravity of the war scenes and the emotional heft of the love story. But it doesn't do it for me in Micmacs, a clunkily connected series of whimsical set pieces intended to convey a serious anti-warmongering message.
It starts well. A beautifully executed montage introduces our hero, Bazil (Dany Boon), without a word. Here and throughout the film, artfully orchestrated sounds do a lot to establish context and convey meaning, as Jeunet and his crew play with the full box of tools available to them like an overgrown Talented and Gifted class. After an accident loses him his job and leaves him homeless, Bazil befriends a cheerily communal band of losers and loners who live under an overpass, in a cave-like dwelling made of scrap metal. As soon as they learn that Bazil is out to take revenge on a pair of arms dealers (one of the dealers manufactured a landmine that killed his father, and the other made a bullet that almost killed him), they're in. And we're off, heading for a series of elaborate set pieces as the motley misfits outsmart the bad guys.
In the press notes, Jeunet says he based Bazil's friends on the characters in Toy Story, giving each "a character trait, something distinctive that serves the story." Of course, Toy Story is hardly the only movie to employ that action-movie cliché of the band of brothers (and occasional sisters) with one essential quirk apiece, but the comparison seems apt, since these characters feel a little like action figures.
Jeunet directs his actors to hit their lines and work their faces hard. That sits better on some than others, getting tiresome fast in the contortionist (Julie Ferrier) who falls for Bazil. Ferrier is near 40 and looks it, so it's a little grotesque to see her act like a tomboy tween in the throes of her first big crush, picking puerile fights with Bazil just to get his attention. The bad guys are too comically exaggerated to feel truly evil. Bad in every way (they torment their employees, and they're nasty to their own kin), they too have one quirk apiece. Jeunet says in the press notes that he got interested in doing something about war profiteers after frequenting a restaurant where some of the other regulars were arms dealers. They had, he notes, "nice-looking faces." This might have been a more interesting movie if he could have gotten some of that shading into his characters.
But Micmacs is not in the subtlety business. This is the kind of movie where homemade stand for integrity; mint-condition signifies soullessness; and just about any trick good enough to be used once is good enough to be repeated.
Bazil's light touch, mournful but sympathetic face, and periodic sampling of various acting styles make him appealing and keep his character, who is only slightly more developed than the others, from losing our interest. But the best part of Micmacs is its elaborate sets and moody cinematography—and those brilliant sound effects, of course. After a while, I stopped caring what happened next and started just admiring the effects, like a kid sneaking off to explore the stuff backstage while the play meanders on without her.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.