Thursday, May 27, 2010

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's MICMACS proves a return to form (more or less)

The first five minutes of MICMACS conflates land mines, loss of family, an orphanage, escape, murder, one of the funniest medical surgeries on record -- and then a little Bogart & Bacall.  It juggles all this with speed, efficiency, humor, bleakness and charm.  These are the best first-five-minutes I've seen in ages -- near perfection, really -- and if the 100 minutes that follow them were as good, we've have an instant classic on our hands.  What comes after is never bad, but the movie goes up and down enough to make you wish for less and better.  (Knocking fifteen minutes off the running time would have helped immensely.)

If careers are arcs, then French writer-director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (at left) must be about three-quarters of his way along the full ellipse. Making a movie approximately once every five years, he's gone from the very dark-but-funny (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) to Hollywood mainstream fumble (Alien: Resurrection) to out-and-out cutesy schlock (Amélie, a movie that set my teeth permanently on edge and filled me for loathing for Audrey Tatou -- until nearly everything else she's done returned me to her fold) to the long-winded, event-filled (A Very Long Engagement) to this latest outing called Micmacs à tire-larigot in the original French -- which proves a kind of homecoming.  More or less.

Jeunet's work has always been dark. Death hovers -- even if you can't quite see the guy (or be certain which of several he is). Rude humor bubbles up consistently, as does sentimentality of a rather gross sort.  Yet the mix is usually so wild and surprising that we go with it.  Filled with devices of the Rube Goldberg sort (were Goldberg chained in a cellar and fed roaches during his childhood years), the movies seem oddly concerned with the way things work, which is often badly for those who people his films.

With MicMacs, Jeunet has hit upon the best new villain in some time.  Forget terrorists -- so yesterday -- the bad guys here are competing arms dealers (André Dussollier, above left, and Nicolas Marié, above right) who've sewn the soil with the kind of land mines that killed the father of our hero (Dany Boon, below) in those first five minutes.  They also manufactured the bullet embedded in his brain that was too dangerous to remove and so threatens his very existence.  A perfect reason and recipe for vengeance, right?  And so it is.

M. Boon falls in with a gang (the titular MicMacs) that includes the likes of Yolande Moreau (below, from Séraphine, criminally underused here), Dominique Pinon and a cute contortionist, played by Julie Ferrier (further below).

Everything moves smoothly along as vengeance appears nearer and nearer.  And this is where thing go, if not exactly awry, then maybe a little too smoothly. Mid-movie, we grow briefly tired of it all, until there's a bump in the proceedings which seems to bring things back to life.

Don't get me wrong: MicMacs is often a lot of fun, and visually -- as usual with Jeunet -- it's a treasure-trove of the bleak combined with the beautiful and the funny.  If only those first five minutes were not so damned brilliant, promising much to come that only partially arrives.

MicMacs, from Sony Pictures Classics, opens Friday, May 28, in New York City at the AMC Empire 25 and at the Angelika Film Center -- and then the following week -- June 4 -- in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco.

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