The Weinstein Company has done serious American filmgoers a signal disservice by not only delaying the release of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest film for two years, but finally dumping it onto a hundred screens with virtually no publicity—and then not in the 3D version that the inventive, perfectionist director so carefully crafted. “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet,” based on Reif Larsen’s well-received 2009 novel “The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet,” may not be Jeunet’s best film—and some will argue that it’s not even a terribly good one overall. But despite its flaws—or perhaps more accurately idiosyncrasies—it’s a beautifully wrought example of the director’s impeccable style, and it certainly deserves better treatment than TWC has given it.
Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet (Kyle Catlett) is a ten-year old boy living on a remote Montana ranch with his father Tecumseh Elijah (Callum Keith Rennie), mother Clair (Helena Bonham Carter) and older sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson). He had a twin brother, Layton (Jakob Davies), who died recently in a shooting accident for which T.S. blames himself. The reason is that the boy, a lad devoted to intellectual pursuits, was measuring rifle shots that Layton, an outgoing cowboy type like his dad, was firing in the barn when something went wrong. Layton’s loss is clearly an emotional burden for T.S., who’s occasionally visited by his dead brother’s helpful spirit, especially at times of stress. He’s also berated by his obtuse teacher, who sees his intelligence and innovative thinking as evidence of of arrogance.
T. S.’s rancher father was far closer to the extrovert Layton and has difficulty leaving his man-cave, decorated with memorabilia of the Wild West, or connecting with T.S.’s scientifically-inclined studies. His mother, a PhD, has begun obsessively studying insects and collecting specimens as a way of coping with her anger, which often breaks through. And Gracie is consumed with thoughts of beauty pageants and acting. Amid this, nobody notices that T.S. gets a call from the Smithsonian Institution telling him he’s won a prestigious prize for his blueprint of a magnetically-run perpetual motion wheel. So he hops a freight train and makes his way across country to Washington D.C., though not without some picaresque adventures along the way (one of which involves Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon as a helpful hobo). Once he arrives, the Smithsonian’s PR deputy Ms. Jibsen (Judy Davis) embraces T.S. despite being surprised by his tender age, because his precocity is sure to attract lots of press attention—which it does, leading to a family reconciliation on the set of a crass cable TV show.
One might imagine this story being told in some sappy Disneyesque fashion, but that’s not Jeunet’s way. He emphasizes the oddities at every turn, even in the dialogue, which in its stiffness sounds like something translated into English from a foreign language—as indeed it probably was. And though he exults in cinematographer Thomas Hardmeier’s lustrous widescreen images of the American landscape (actually shot, for the most part, in Canada rather than the U.S.), his compositions—like the backyard of a girl on a swing T.S. spies while travelling in a van on a flatbed car—have the vibrantly artificial quality that’s always been his specialty. His penchant for animated on-screen diagrams and drawings and images superimposed upon others is also much in evidence. The result is a film that comes across as precious, one that feels like a rarified bauble more interested in making visual points than in being emotionally expressive.
Yet while its form creates a distancing effect, the sheer beauty of the images provides ample compensation. There’s more than a hint of Kubrickian formalism not only in the way Jeunet lovingly employs the locations as well as the physical production designed by Aline Bonetto and costumes of Madeline Fontaine, but in the rigor with which he stations and directs his actors, who often seem like props themselves. Rennie is used, for example, like a stern-faced icon of the Old West, and young Catlett and Davies simply for their apple-cheeked freshness; Bonham Carter and Davis don’t fit into pigeonholed molds quite so easily, but both of them are essentially frantic caricatures that play off against them, wild in the way George C. Scott was as compared to Peter Sellers’ President Muffley in “Dr. Strangelove.” And as a sleazy TV host Rick Mercer is the sort of stereotype of corporate wickedness the director has featured in many of his previous films.
Reports have flown that the reason “T.S. Spivet” languished so long on the shelf is that Jeunet used his contractual rights to prevent it from being reedited to make it more crowd-friendly—or kid-friendly—for American release But it’s hard to imagine that any sort of tweaking could have transformed it into something it’s not. It’s a typical Jeunet film, which means that it’s amazingly accomplished from a technical point of view but synthetic and emotionally remote, unsentimental even when concerned with sentimental subject matter—a truly personal effort that has to be taken on its own terms or not at all. The pity is that because of the shabby treatment it’s gotten from the Weinstein Company, not many people in this country will have the opportunity to sample it and decide whether it’s to their liking, and even those who do won’t be able to see it in the 3D form in which the director envisaged it, and which might have made for another “Hugo.” Shame on you, Harvey.