There comes a time in every filmmaker’s career when it suddenly feels like they’re coasting. They’ve made a name for themselves had some success and challenged themselves in one way or another so now it’s time to take it easy do what they do best and give the people what they want. Perhaps they’re taking a break before they try to do something big again or maybe they’re paying off the debt of a previous flop but the one thing they’re not doing is taking any risks. It’s the same-old same-old and while it might please the fans the real admirers probably won’t be pleased. It happens more often than we’d like to admit but unfortunately it does happen.
This is the case with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs the latest from the director who gave us Amelie Delicatessen and City of Lost Children (the latter two co-directed with Marc Caro). Those films earned him comparisons to Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton but Jeunet proved he had a unique and witty cinematic style that he could call his own and with the international popularity of Amelie audiences everywhere took notice granting this very talented director a lot of leeway to make films in his own style. With his next film 2004’s A Very Long Engagement he decided to stray from the style of his previous films and attempt something more dramatic and though the film was generally well-received Jeunet decided to go back to the well of whimsy with Micmacs with very mixed results. While casual fans should be pleased anyone interested in watching a filmmaker grow artistically (as Jeunet had been) will shrug and leave disappointed.
Like his fellow fantasists Gilliam and Burton Jeunet’s detractors have often described him as a stylist first and storyteller second. I’ve never subscribed to that theory until now — I always felt a connection to his offbeat characters and stories — but with Micmacs he either has failed to help us make that connection or he simply doesn’t care enough himself. Part of the problem is that the film hangs on the flimsiest of plotlines: Homeless man Dany Boon seeks revenge on the feuding weapons manufacturers responsible for the landmine that killed his parents and the bullet in his head (a result a drive-by shooting) by teaming up with a rag-tag group of other homeless people all of them with their own set of special skills. A picture like this should hook us in from the very start or it’s never going to get off the ground and Micmacs’ opening already suggests that Jeunet isn’t breaking any new ground here; whimsy for whimsy’s sake will only yield limited results especially without a real story in place. Although it’s filled with a number of the filmmaker’s patented set pieces Micmacs is never as engaging as it would like to be. Numerous sequences that resemble Rube Goldberg meets Warner Brothers cartoons are definitely amusing to watch and offer some trademark Jeunet imagery but there’s no reason to care about what we’re seeing. Boon’s plight should be a moving one but for Jeunet it feels more like an excuse to shoot his regular co-star Dominique Pinon out of a giant cannon.
Pinon’s presence represents another problem with Micmacs: although the film is very well cast almost none of these characters register with the audience. Boon’s homeless “family” is filled with faces out of the Jeunet central casting book but we never really learn who they are nor do we understand why they follow Boon’s character through the lengths that they do. Just because they’re “characters” doesn’t really give them character to portray and though the film is energetically performed by all (with special recognition going to the charming Marie-Julie Baup) they’re just figures for Jeunet’s giant Parisian play set. There’s no question that there are certain pleasures to be found in Micmacs; it looks wonderful with some great production design and cinematography by Tetsuo Nagata and Jeunet’s use of classic Max Steiner music definitely adds to the fun. But these enjoyments are really surface-level only and the film doesn’t have enough weight to hold them up. I certainly wanted to like this one more than I did and I’m sure many of you will disagree with my assessment and enjoy yourselves anyway but Micmacs ultimately isn’t the best example of what Jean-Pierre Jeunet is capable of.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
It’s Paris 1936 and the winds of war are circling. The depression has created hard economic times and the Chansonia Music Hall just to north of the city has closed down leaving three show biz workers out of a job. Stage hand Pigoil is worried he could lose custody of his 12-year-old son. Milou is a hot-headed electrician and a ladies' man who is determined to have his voice heard. Jacky sold sandwiches there but has his own dreams of starring on stage. When fate intervenes the three get the chance to produce a show that could save the theater and change their lives forever.
WHO’S IN IT?
A superlative French cast is led by veteran Gerard Jugnot as Pigoil who brings gravitas and warmth to the central role. Kad Merad steals all his scenes as the hapless Jacky whose talent for imitation leaves something to be desired. Comedy legend Pierre Richard returns as the mysterious Monsieur TSF who makes the dream possible while Clovis Cornillac gets all the nuances of Milou down pat. Best of all as Douce a young girl hired for the big show is first-timer Nora Arnezeder a major new talent who bewitches with dual acting and singing abilities that make her one to watch.
Co-writer and director Christophe Barratier more than confirms the promise he showed in his first directorial effort The Chorus another music-heavy project for which he received two Oscar nominations. With the help of a first-rate production team he has created a part of Paris that may never have really existed but personifies the romantic ideal we have of the City of Lights. His purely delectable and visually enchanting film is a throwback to the kind of musicals we don’t see anymore. And the song numbers all in French are just sensational.
There’s a little bit too much emphasis on French politics of the time but overall this is a wonderful cinematic valentine to an era long gone.
A Busby Berkeley-style song and dance number is lots of fun to watch and recalls the best of the Warner Bros. musicals of the '30s.