Micmacs is the logical next step in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s career, more or less completely doing away with narrative as a vital component and exalting mouse trap-style set pieces as a be-all end-all. To discuss the Amélie director’s latest in terms of story is almost to waste breath on a superfluous element, as his tale, from the opening sight of a woman expressing sudden grief with a grotesque open-mouthed squeak-squawk, thoroughly feigns serious, empathetic concern for characters and themes. Rather, Jeunet’s film is all about intricate domino-effect sequences designed to show off his cleverness. The nominal plot concerns a winsomely weird video store clerk named Bazil (Dany Boon) who, after surviving a stray gunshot to the head, teams up with a raft of carnival kooks to take down the rival arms manufacturers responsible for his noggin’s bullet as well as the landmine that, years earlier, killed his dad.
Yet this cursorily sketched version of Yojimbo, decked out in the director’s idiosyncratic aesthetics and infused with his preferred brand of strained whimsical romance, is more or less beside the point. Fanciful cartoonishness is the ruling order of the day, and it’s an order served over and over, to the point that the proceedings practically choke on their insistent adorableness. Once again envisioning his native France as a sepia-infused fantasyland of sweet-natured freaks and geeks, Jeunet pivots his material around an easily digestible conflict—between a victim of violence and the dastardly perpetrators of global bloodshed—so that he need not create intricate drama. Clear-cut good-versus-evil suffices because Micmacs doesn’t care about genuine emotional or storytelling dynamics; its interests are solely the construction and orchestration of elaborate Rube Goldberg traps, which dominate the action to a degree that the film qualifies less as a true feature than as a series of short movies strung together by a tenuous thread.
As usual, Jeunet’s camera has a free-floating grace and silkiness, and his compositions are as assured as ever, his command over every part of his puzzle-like frame impressive. Nonetheless, as Bazil is welcomed into the bizarro trash-heap home of Mamma Chow (Yolande Moreau), befriends peculiar new comrades (including Dominique Pinon’s human cannonball and Marie-Julie Baup’s mathematical whiz), and develops a romance with a sweet-natured contortionist (Julie Ferrier), the only response engendered is one of revulsion at the quirky cuteness that permeates everything and is epitomized by the soundtrack’s sprightly piano and accompanying gear clinks and clanks. It’s like being trapped at an overly pleased-with-itself twee circus.
Wannabe-lovable bizarreness flourishes unchecked, from Bazil’s habit of dealing with migraines by thinking of random trivia questions, depicted via brief animated interludes, to the oddball gallery that comprises the tale’s peripheral players. There’s certainly inventiveness to Bazil’s mini plots, all of which operate in jaunty cause-effect fashion; a ruse here leads to a contraption and a surprise there. But since there’s no tension or suspense to either the overall tale or to Bazil and company’s individual schemes, Micmacs quickly devolves into merely a showcase for Jeunet’s trademark variety of belligerent comic-strip imaginativeness. Nefarious bad guys combat noble heroes in a make-believe urban landscape scrubbed clean of reality, with race, class, and gender-related issues subsumed underneath a layer of schmaltzy eccentricity.
All the while, aside from precious classic-cinema shout-outs (here, via Bazil’s intro lip-syncing to The Big Sleep), love proves Jeunet’s guiding narrative preoccupation, the director elevating romantic bliss to the highest pedestal even as he fails to provide any sort of human component that might make such a celebration moving. Inundated with self-satisfied gizmos, faux-endearing clowns, and more rubbery-faced overacting than even a Looney Tunes episode could withstand, it’s a film that can only affect an atmosphere of amour, divorced as it is from any sense of honest feeling.