If Pixar could ever be said to have a red-headed stepchild it would be 2006’s Cars. Other studios would be doing backflips and buying self-congratulatory Variety ads if their tentpoles earned Cars’ 74% Rotten Tomatoes rating but for Pixar it represents an all-time low. Scan the positive reviews and you’ll notice they’re mostly filled with praise of the qualified kind as in “It’s no Toy Story or Incredibles but…”
So why bother with a sequel? Because even a studio of such vaunted artistic integrity as Pixar must occasionally bow to the dictates of the market: Cars may be among Pixar’s lesser-regarded and lesser-performing films (though a $461 million worldwide gross hardly constitutes failure) but it is astonishingly successful as a brand second only to the Toy Story franchise in its worldwide merchandising haul. The prospective numbers alone – Cars 2 is expected to outstrip Toy Story 3’s multi-billion-dollar retail sales tally – made another Cars installment all but inevitable.
That’s not to say Cars 2 is just some naked cash-grab. As the Toy Story follow-ups demonstrated Pixar and producer-director John Lasseter take their sequels seriously and never embark upon them without a plan that allows a reasonable chance at surpassing the original. And their plan in the case of Cars 2 calls for a wholesale overhaul.
The story begins with racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) now a four-time Piston Cup champion accepting a challenge by arrogant Italian Formula One racer Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) to compete against him in the World Grand Prix a series of races in Japan Italy France and England. But once Cars 2 arrives in Tokyo the setting of its first race the plot pulls an audacious switcheroo morphing into a rollicking spy thriller. (This is presaged by its opening sequence an elaborate take-off of classic Bond-movie prologues.) Lightning the hero of the first film retreats to the sidelines as the story shifts its focus to his dim-witted tow-truck sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) who through a case of mistaken identity is thrust into the center of a conspiracy involving efforts to thwart a revolutionary alternative fuel called Allinol.
On the trail of the mysterious green-energy haters are British secret agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) the spitting image of 007’s iconic silver Aston Martin DB5 (actual brand names are for the most part avoided) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) a plucky purple roadster who believe Mater to be an American agent under deep cover. Fumbling toward gallantry his ignorance and clumsiness attributed to his elaborate disguise Mater’s arc echoes those of the protagonists in Being There and other works in which simpletons inadvertently elevated to positions of significance. Heroism it seems knows no IQ.
All told Cars 2 represents a solid upgrade – lighter quicker sleeker and brighter than the original model. Leaving the provincial confines of Radiator Springs the setting of the first film is a boon to the animators allowing them to showcase breathtaking 3D renderings of exotic skylines and cityscapes. The film boasts an earnest if artlessly conveyed pro-environmentalist message but I would hesitate to call it a message film. In fact it may be Pixar’s least-serious film to date: silly whimsical and crammed with one-liners and throwaway sight gags. It lacks the immense depth of feeling that characterizes more esteemed Pixar releases like Toy Story 3 or Up! but it's by no means hollow either. Those wishing for that old familiar Pixar profundity may simply have to accept that a world made up exclusively of anthropomorphized cars just isn’t conducive to it.
All of which suggests that Cars 2 is principally geared toward the audience’s younger and more distractible members who may lose track of the conspiracy plotline or fail to grasp its energy politics but will devour the rest of the film like a supercharged pixie stick. A handful of vehicles actually die in the film though never on-screen. The implied vehicular carnage probably won’t traumatize the little ones but it could prompt a few uncomfortable “Do cars go to heaven?” conversations.
Adults’ appreciation for Cars 2 may ultimately hinge on their respective tolerance for Mater’s bumbling redneck shtick and the film’s reliance (some might say overreliance) on fish-out-of-water/culture-clash humor. The comic tone of Cars 2 is about what you’d expect from a film in which Larry the Cable guy gets the lion’s share of the dialogue which is to say: exceedingly lowbrow. I tired of it shortly after the first act; your mileage may vary.
Misery loves the Savages--always has. Ever since they were kids Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have been plagued by the blasé blues. Even though they went their separate ways the siblings have remained somewhat close geographically--she lives in Manhattan he in Buffalo--and in their discontentment. But what made them this way in the first place their father (Philip Bosco) is about to reunite them. After losing his mind to dementia and his longtime girlfriend (Rosemary Murphy) to well death the old man officially needs to be looked after and that’s where Jon and Wendy reluctantly come in. Despite having not seen their estranged father in ages they fly out to his Arizona senior-citizen-friendly community immediately upon word of his downfall. What they didn’t plan on however is staying more than a couple days. Ultimately they take him back to Buffalo and place him in a nursing home about which Wendy constantly feels guilty. Now forced to live together and look in the metaphorical mirror the siblings Savage learn about self-discovery mortality each other and how to revive a decades-old rivalry as though it had never gone away. Given the way Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman constantly one-up each other in The Savages you’d think there was a real sibling rivalry at play. Of course it’s merely two of today’s very best actors giving par-for-the-course flawless performances. In so doing they create something beyond chemistry: a relationship so fractured and imperfectly perfect that it could only exist between an aging brother and sister. Whether the scene calls for fireworks or subtlety solo or together Linney and Hoffman are always up to the task. Linney is especially wide-ranging as Wendy still fights her midlife crisis. The veteran actress is often heartbreaking because Wendy is often heartbroken even when she tries to convince herself otherwise but Linney still manages to leave the window of hope cracked open--for us and her character. She truly encompasses everything in this her best performance to date. Hoffman is slightly more of a supporting player here but no less impactful. The Oscar winner is apathetic through much of the film but his terse outbursts of anger and/or sadness are stark reminders of his awe-inspiring range as an actor. Perhaps the most savage Savage is the patriarch played with grace by longtime actor Bosco. But instead of vilifying Lenny or making him worthy of all your pity Bosco makes him a rollercoaster of emotion as per Lenny's dementia. It’s been nine years since writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ last--and only other--feature-length film the twisted coming-of-age tale Slums of Beverly Hills which has given her plenty of time to think grow older and think about growing older. She philosophizes aloud in The Savages a movie that addresses everything you don’t want to but with a sardonic edge to it; in fact maybe this is as much a coping mechanism for her as it is an artistic endeavor. While the movie is primarily about the title siblings it essentially explores the human condition under their guise. But Jenkins does so in a way that is never preachy never obnoxious never sappy and always astutely observed. It’s her naturalistic approach to moviemaking that will turn what is ultimately a sharp dramedy into too much of a downer to please casual moviegoers looking for lighthearted fare in wintertime--this is NOT Little Miss Sunshine--but those who go in looking for a drama will be moved occasionally to laughter. Because The Savages is that rare deep movie: heavy on symbolism and meaning light on pretense and contrivance.