Stylish ‘Micmacs’ is merrily demented
‘Micmacs’’ is the equivalent of a circus troupe setting up a tent in a war zone: You’re entertained, even delighted, but after a while you suspect there are more serious matters at hand.
The film’s the latest work to spring from the playfully hyperactive brainpan of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the French writer-director who gave us the 2001 international hit “Amelie’’ and the underrated, little-seen World War I epic “A Very Long Engagement’’ (2004). “Micmacs’’ shares with “Engagement’’ Jeunet’s opinion of war: He doesn’t like it. But where the earlier movie earned its anger and its hope over the course of an exhaustive emotional journey, the new film comes off as a small, well-intentioned firecracker wedged between the toes of an elephant. It goes off, all right, but the elephant doesn’t feel a thing.
Jeunet still tells a story with style, though, and he never met a camera move he didn’t fetishize. “Micmacs’’ concerns a sad-sack Parisian named Bazil (Dany Boon) who in youth lost his father to a land mine and, more recently, a chunk of his skull to a stray slug from a gangbanger’s gun. Land mine and bullet are the products of, respectively, high-rolling armaments manufacturers Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet (André Dussollier) and François Marconi (Nicolas Marié), whose headquarters face each other across the street like corporate pirate vessels in a Monty Python movie.
The fun begins — for Jeunet, anyway, and for a good while the audience as well — when Bazil is reduced to homelessness after his accident and washes up with a crew of eccentrics living under the city dump. Cared for by the matronly, if abusive, Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau, of “Seraphine’’), the group includes Tiny Pete (Michel Crémadès), an artist of recycled junk; Remington (Omar Sy), an overly effusive African; Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), a pert numbers expert; the blustery human cannonball Buster (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon), and Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), a contortionist first seen relaxing inside a refrigerator. They all join forces with the downcast but resourceful Bazil to monkey-wrench the death merchants.
And that’s all there really is to “Micmacs’’ — a sort of merrily demented “Mission Impossible’’ crossed with a human Bugs Bunny movie. The film’s full title, “Micmacs a Tire-Larigot,’’ is slang for “nonstop madness,’’ which refers both to the global arms trade and our heroes’ fiendishly complex Rube Goldberg plans to drive Fenouillet and Marconi around the bend and out of business. It’s all in acerbic fun and, despite an undeserved R rating, perhaps best for really smart teenagers. Grown-ups who read too many newspapers might find the dissonance between serious subject and frothy tone overly jarring.
Jeunet works hard at maintaining the air of a fable, though, and his abiding passion for cinema gives “Micmacs’’ a lovely out-of-time patina. It’s the sort of film that recycles classic Max Steiner scores to give the suspense an old-school lift and that has its characters meet furtively at the grave of the French actor-director Sacha Guitry, who’d doubtless applaud what Jeunet is up to here. At times, Boon’s near-wordless buffoonery echoes with the spirits of Chaplin and Keaton and Tati; in other scenes, he’s a ringer for a young Michel Simon, the shaggy goat-god of “L’Atalante’’ and “Boudu Saved From Drowning.’’
It’s that same movie-love, though, that keeps “Micmacs’’ from connecting to the underlying seriousness of the issue and that in the end renders it an uneasily naïve experience. The movie is fun but only fun. It’s also the closest Jeunet has come to the wild, self-absorbed work of Terry Gilliam, and for the first time his fancies show their limitations. The most telling image in “Micmacs’’ is one of its last: a lovely, whimsical dance performed by a dress with nobody inside it.