The limitations of the flamboyant style that worked so well for Jean-Pierre Jeunet in “Amelie” and “A Very Long Engagement” become abundantly clear in “Micmacs,” an irritatingly cute and complicated farce that resembles nothing more than a string of three-minute live-action cartoons strung together into a whole far less funny and charming than it thinks it is.
The movie has its peak in the first few minutes, in which the dippy hero Bazil (gawky clown Dany Boon), a clerk at a crummy video store, gets a bullet in the head when he runs outside to witness an assault. The sequence is staged with the same oddball confidence that marked “Amelie,” and leads one to expect the rest of the picture will be equally enjoyable.
But after the surgeons decide (by flipping a coin) not to try to remove a shell that’s dangerously close to the brain and the patient’s released, Bazil loses his job and tries to survive on the street like a broke Mr. Bean. (One of his goofy routines, miming a song to the voice of a female street singer, in fact recalls one of Rowan Atkinson’s in “Mr. Bean’s Holiday.”) Eventually, though, he’s taken in by a group of wacky misfits, the titular family of happy outcasts who spend their time collecting junk and turning the detritus into strange mechanical contraptions. They include Buster (Dominique Pinon), a daredevil out to get into the book of world records; Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle), an elderly but spry ex-con who’s great at busting locks; Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), a contortionist who can slink into the smallest places; Remington (Omar Sy), named after his typewriter; Caculator (Marie-Julie Baup), a math wiz; Tiny Pete (Michel Cremades), an elfin inventor; and Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), a sort of brusque den mother to the bunch.
What passes for a plot—or at best, a linking device—kicks in when Bazil stumbles on the identity of the rival arms firms responsible for his predicament. Located across the street from one another, they’re run by comic antagonists Marconi (Nicolas Marie), a priggish numbers-cruncher, and Fenouillet (Andre Dussollier), who spends much of his time on his hobby of collecting desiccated body parts of dead celebrities (he’s in the market for one of Mussolini’s eyes), which he keeps enshrined in glass exhibit cases. Bazil enlists his cohorts in elaborate missions to set the two men against one another, cause an industrial war between them, and bring down the two war-mongering outfits.
These episodes are staged like live-action cartoons, with Rube Goldberg devices and split-second timing; it’s like watching a 104-minute Road Runner movie, with the arms dealers a pair of humiliated Wile E. Coyotes. The problem is that cartoons aren’t really meant to go on that long, and the insistent effort to be cute and quirky has an increasingly deadening effect. That continues into the inevitable setback for our merry band, which is quickly reversed in a final victory over the despicable villains. Unfortunately, that denouement involves a rather unpleasant imposture supposedly set in a desert and involving land mines, followed by what’s quickly becoming a cliché—the spread of the bad guys’ unmasking on YouTube.
It would also have helped if the Micmacs band had been composed of more likable characters. But they come across instead as a bunch of weird, somewhat creepy eccentrics, and the actors don’t make them particularly lovable. Moreau, so stunning in “Seraphine,” is especially wasted as Mama Chow, and even a budding romance between Bazil and Ferrier’s contortionist doesn’t bring much to the party. But Dussollier endows Fenouillet with a smoldering anger reminiscent of Herbert Lom’s “Pink Panther” persona.
“Micmacs” has the great look characteristic of Jeunet; every scene benefits from Aline Bonetto’s flamboyant production design, and Tetsuo Nagata’s camerawork and Herve Schneid’s editing for the most part keep the complicated action clear, even though the elaborate schemes often don’t have much rhyme or reason to them. Movie buffs will especially enjoy the reminiscences to classic movies—the opening involves an excerpt from “The Big Sleep,” and Raphael Beau’s score makes a point of using memorable swaths of Max Steiner’s music to accentuate the movie’s debt to Hollywood’s past, including of course the era of silent-movie slapstick.
But all the visual and aural dexterity in the world—most of which seems on display here—can’t make up for a script that ultimately comes up short and characters that don’t connect with us emotionally. Those are the areas where this movie fails to match Jeunet’s previous efforts, and one hopes it’s just a temporary stumble.