‘Micmacs’ Could Make Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton Squirm with Jealousy

[8 February 2011]

By Ian Chant

For all of it’s originality and novelty, Micmacs, the latest offering from director Jean-Pierre Jeunet may seem rather familiar to longtime fans. While the film bristles with cute ideas and unique, brilliantly executed gags, it also functions as an homage to early silent cinema, featuring clownish bits and routines unencumbered by dialogue that would do Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton proud. Or make them squirm with jealousy.

But Micmacs also provides a telling glimpse of Jeunet’s growth as an artist and his growing mastery as a director. Fans of Jeunet’s debut feature, Delicatessen, will find much that seems familiar in Micmacs. Where Delicatessen was occasionally choppy and uneven, though, Micmacs is made with the technical skill to pull it off. Jeunet’s development from a good filmmaker to a great one is thrown into sharp relief here, and it’s quite a sight to see.

At it’s best, in the highly stylized and inimitably executed scenes that owe as much to the Three Stooges and Rube Goldberg as they do comedic luminaries like Keaton and Chaplin, Micmacs resembles nothing so much as watching a sporting event of the highest caliber, a quarterback on the hottest of streaks, hitting every pass, every note, and making it all look way too easy. Jeunet and his performers stick every landing that confronts them. Jeunet’s masterful comic timing is also in full bloom, whether artfully building tension towards an inevitable conclusion or punctuating a thoroughly everyday scene with a sudden burst of pitch-dark slapstick.

Jeunet is not an island, however, and the success of Micmacs is dependent upon a cast that can pull the gags off at the highest level. Luckily, Micmacs is staffed by performers who deftly and delightfully handle the gags that Jeunet throws at them, which is no mean feat considering the demands placed upon them. Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon is entertainingly over the top as a ravening, raging rascal of a human cannonball, while Dany Boon’s shy, everyman performance belies a staggering gift for physical comedy.

Micmacs also allows Jeunet to stretch his wings with gadgets, arming his misfit crew with a stunning array of inspired DIY things and toys. Far from the polished, ornate gizmos of City of Lost Children, the robots, toys and surveillance equipment of Micmacs are no less intricate or entertaining. These charmingly haphazard devices bring to mind the mechanical circuses of Alexander Calder, and find their parallels in the schemes and scams that power the film.  Seemingly slapdash, constructed out of whatever materials are at hand, these deceptively ornate gizmos and grifts are the clockwork heart of Micmacs, the gears that move every piece into it’s proper place, and just in the nick of time. The schemes and scams that unfold throughout the film do so with impeccable timing and, perhaps more importantly,  with a real sense of wonder.

Dominated by golden, almost sepia tones that lend it an almost classical look, Micmacs itself seems like one of these automata, an intricate machine in which ever gear and coil is finely aligned, simply waiting for a button to be pushed before it springs into action. It’s in this design, however, that Micmacs makes it few missteps.

While the film stays perpetually light, charming and amusing, it does so at the cost of any real emotional impact. Romances seem tacked on and easily won loyalties are taken for granted. Least forgivably, the characters that populate Micmacs are more akin to caricatures, less creatures in themselves than tools that exist only for the conceit of the film. The storytelling is undeniably clever and entertaining, but at the end of the day, there just isn’t much there there.

The film is not without a technical misstep here and there – Bazil’s occasional high octane flights of fancy, brought on by the damage the bullet has wrought on his brain pan, feel distinctly out of place, coming off as weirdness for the sake of weirdness, out of step with the world of the film. A brief animated foray into odd deaths throughout history is fun for what it is, but ultimately seems similarly shoehorned in. These are quibbling, secondary concerns, though, that ultimately fail to mar an otherwise excellently crafted, delight of a film.

The special features for Micmacs are pretty much cursory, starting with a standard issue commentary that can safely be avoided by all but the most ardent Jeunet fans. Also on hand are storyboards and animatics for some of Micmacs animated scenes, and a brief question and answer session with the director and performer Julie Ferrer culled from the TriBeca Film Festival. While Jenuet himself is lively and charming on stage in front of his fans, it’s ultimately footage that, once again, probably won’t hold the attention of many but the most earnest and interested Jeunet boosters.

By turns funny and sweet, Micmacs is above all else a joy to watch, an exercise in the pure pleasures of cinema that displays the creative flow and technical mastery of a filmmaker at the height of his powers and totally confident in his work.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/136546-micmacs/