"Micmacs:" Shenanigans and Schadenfreude

The cast of "Micmacs" is believable as a ragtag bunch on a mission for vengeance

The full French title is “Micmacs à Tire-Larigot,” but we with English tongues are given the shortened “Micmacs.”  This titular edit done for two reasons.  First, unless you are Harry Potter, American audiences don’t respond well to long titles.  Consider director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s seminal work “Amelie,” the cutesy love-it-or-hate-it romantic comedy, whose full French title is “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain.” Second, it just doesn’t translate.  In interviews,  Jeunet has said that it most closely resembles the English word “shenanigans,” but ultimately is a French idiom with no equivalent.  After seeing the movie and reading the bottom of the screen for an hour and a half, I wonder if the story lost just as much in translation.  The film was witty, and beautiful, yet simple, forgetful, and vain.  But however vapid, this cartoonish carnival of cinema reminded of a simpler time.  (Cue dreamy flashback music and wavy transitions…)

When I was a kid, Saturday mornings found me sitting on my floor, legs wrapped around a bowl of cereal, fingers tinkering with some hand-me down toy, and watching “Tom and Jerry” cartoons with sadistic pleasure. “Yeah, Jerry, come on. Do it. Shove that stick of TNT right down that pussy’s eye-socket.”  Then I grew up (chronologically speaking), went to college, swapped cartoons for CNN.   I found out about that Guantanamo Bay thing; I guess torture is not quite ethical, or something.  I’m told it’s never funny (despite the faces people probably make), and perhaps not appropriate subject matter for a children’s show about cuddly animals. I thought about “Tom and Jerry,” and started feeling bad for the cat and all the grief he’s given by the curiously resourceful rodent. It’s almost against my nature, having held tight to my childhood love of mice and other small woodland things, but I mean, Tom is just abiding by his nature. Cat’s gotta eat, ya dig? Unfortunately for Tom, sympathy is a greater power than reason.  Seeing the small, fragile, innocent Jerry pitted against the dangerous, sharp-eyed feline, I find it natural to cheer for the underdog, to delight at the surprising levels of violence and cruelty with which these mousy archetypes can get away.

And get away with it they do in “Micmacs.”  To replace Jerry, we have Bazil, a video-store clerk who finds himself on the wrong end of a stray bullet, joins up with a band of outsiders, falls in love with a contortionist, and ultimately starts a war with two weapons dealers. The antagonists are not simply tyrannical businessmen; they are also the reason for the bullet in Bazil’s brain, as well as the death of his father. The French director mercilessly pits them against the most lovable, quirky and cartoonish armada ever assembled in cinema history. How could they stand a chance?

Dominique Pignon.

The skirmishes that ensue are colorful, inventive, delicious and cartoonish, but about as relevant to the narrative as explosions and car chases in so many action films: completely dispensable, but  the reason you buy the ticket.  One such scene involves the troupe shoving their human-bullet (played by Jeunet veteran Dominique Pignon, who’s acted in every one of the director’s films) down a gigantic cannon and blasting him across the Seine, where he sets off a chain reaction that unleashes a swarm of wasps upon the weapons plant.  The arms manufacturer retaliates, our heroes fight back, and this volley continues until the film’s end.  Guess who wins.  While the director has said that the film is a “satire on the arms trade,” the whole thing feels merely like an excuse to watch these live action interpretations of Saturday morning cartoons.

Watching “Micmacs,” I wanted to feel that juvenile joy again, I wanted to blissfully revel in their comeuppance. Instead, I kept trying to dive deeper into the film, find some context, some relevance, some reason for the price of a movie ticket in NYC. When a new Jeunet is in theaters, it’s like the circus has come to town, but sadly this ringmaster has learned no new tricks. True, I was constantly giggling, delighted by the carnival-like visuals and adventures, but I was forever anxious for the main act to begin.  The movie, just like its colorful supporting cast, is interested in aesthetic delights, and little else.

Jeunet is just as much a product as Tarantino or Burton, or my personal favorite, Terry Gilliam, but in his own particular Technicolor and decidedly French way.  Not unlike how so many goth-punk teen girls  (or 21 year old college boys disguised as such in corsets from Hot Topic) went to see “Alice in Wonderland” for its dreary landscapes, fishnet stockings, and Johnny Depp, I bought my ticket for Jeunet expecting his Circus Tent style, inventive use of color, and Dominique Pignon.  He consistently operates within his own inter-textual world of misfits and green palettes that tiptoes atop the fence between fantasy and reality. His previous ventures ultimately fall to one side or the other, but “Micmacs” never seems to decide where it wants to land. Truth be told, the film seems to not know a lot about itself, but simply doesn’t care.  In the first act, for example, the brain-lodged bullet is established as this irreversible, unstoppable force that will kill Bazil in short time.  Then, luckily for Bazil, this colossal detail is entirely glossed over, and the film never references it again.

The movie is underdeveloped, has more holes than Highland Street, but is certainly one of the most earnest flicks I’ve seen this year. The movie wastes little time getting to where it wants to go, and hits plot points like a kid hits Brussels sprouts before that coveted dessert.  And even for all the negativity injected into this article, “Micmacs” serves up a delicious strawberry rhubarb pie.  I know I don’t need to watch the movie again, but I still feel hungry for a second slice. The scenes with characters shooting out of cannons or boasting their new rickety contraptions are intoxicating.

Who will win this battle? We're rooting for Jerry.

After so many Toys ‘R Us summer blockbusters, this film feels like that quiet and unassuming toy shop that sells wind-up monkeys and dusty magic sets. It may not have the toy you’re looking for, but the shop owner doesn’t care. He opened the business because these are the toys he loves. He’ll sell him to you, and if you’re not interested, he’ll play with them himself as he sits around watching “Tom and Jerry” cartoons on his old analog TV set, rooting for that vicious yet vindicated mouse.