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Whimsy overload. That’s what you may be feeling after watching only the opening chapters of Micmacs, writer-director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s return to Amélie-esque fancy. Parts of the film are gorgeous, goofy, and wry; some scenes are so balletic and artfully photographed as to be minimasterpieces. Taken as a whole, though, the enterprise is wearisome.
The director’s main sin is trying too hard. Co-written by frequent Jeunet collaborator Guillaume Laurant, Micmacs tells the story of Bazil (Dany Boon), a man seeking playful vengeance for the father he lost to a land mine and, later, taking an accidental bullet to the brain during a drive-by outside the video store where he works. Bazil lives, precariously—his doctor flips a coin to decide not to remove the bullet, though keeping it in means his patient could die at any time—but loses his apartment and his job.
While faux-busking (he lip-syncs to a nearby vocalist in a train station), miming, and generally acting the sidewalk clown to earn some money, Bazil meets Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle), an ex-con and skilled lock picker who invites him to live in a shanty of wackiness. A fringe group keeps house there, including a contortionist (Julie Ferrier), a compulsive human calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), a gleefully cliché-spouting ethnographer (Omar Sy), and a quiet senior (Michel Crémadès) who turns items salvaged by the band into twee things such as a dancing mouse that pops out of a suitcase. Mothering the lot of them is a woman who lost her two daughters in a house of mirrors (Yolande Moreau); barking at them about having made the Guinness Book of World Records is a stuntman (Dominique Pinon). Bazil, with his half-forehead scar, fits right in.
Naturally, a caper’s afoot. It plays like one long, live-action Wallace and Gromit sketch—and proves that such precious shenanigans (which is an approximate translation for micmacs) are more endearing when executed by claymation figures than by real people. Bazil eventually stumbles upon the two arms manufacturers responsible for the weapons that felled him and his father. (When he finds one building, an orchestra literally appears on its steps to play a typical “ Aha!” fanfare.) When confronting one of the CEOs directly doesn’t work, he sets to sabotaging both of them, making the thefts/blackmail/mayhem aimed at each look like the work of the other cad. Naturally, Bazil’s new friends use their special skills to help him, from delivering the contortionist in a box to each man’s home to connecting a jar of bees to an old-fashioned alarm clock so it will drop in a pool of workers.
Boon, so charming in 2006’s My Best Friend, shows an impressive talent for slapstick. But personality-wise, he’s upstaged by Sy and Pinon (the latter has the best goofy expressions of the lot). A developing romance between Bazil and the gang’s so-called Elastic Girl is sparkless and only, er, stretches the plot’s tedium, but Jeunet occasionally rewards your patience with nifty touches. The opening credits are styled old-school in black and white, a blast blows the pages of a pinup calendar month by month, and the entire film has a golden, hypersaturated sheen thanks to Splice cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata.
The scene in which Bazil gets shot also allows Nagata to tap into his knack for horror, with the camera angled at the top of Bazil’s head as viscous blood oozes from his wound. But Micmacs tends to trade reality for something more circuslike. Some viewers will think, Merci!; others will cry for mercy.