A new film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet ought to feel like an event. After all, the director of Amélie is one of the most idiosyncratic, and cherished, film-makers in contemporary French cinema. And yet, even in a so-so week with room to shine, Micmacs offers a profound sense of anti-climax. To be blunt, it's a non-event.
This is Jeunet-lite, a movie with all of this fabulist's tropes – the parade of misfits and eccentrics, the witty biographical sketches and racy bombardment of plot strands, the visual invention – but lacking the spark that ignites a story in our minds. In Delicatessen, that spark was the introduction to a bizarre universe, a cacophonous comedy of creaking beds in a dystopian boarding house; in Amélie it was Audrey Tautou's magical emotional connection with the camera; in A Very Long Engagement, it was a surprisingly gutsy rendition of war that brought to mind Kubrick's Paths of Glory. Micmacs has no such qualities to engage us. Watching it is like entering an exotic toy shop whose owner has wound up all the toys and then left the premises.
The story concerns Bazil (Dany Boon), a young man with two reasons for hating weapons manufacturers: the landmine that killed his father in Africa, and the stray bullet lodged in his brain that could kill him at any moment. When he discovers the companies responsible for his woes, Bazil plans revenge, with the help of a gang of ragtag misfits who live, literally, beneath a scrapyard, surviving by finding elaborate uses for the junk on their doorstep.
This time around, Jeunet's oddballs, among them a contortionist and a human cannonball, lack charm and distinction. With Boon an almost silent, clownish hero, centre stage is left to the film's villains, the two weapons manufacturers-cum-arms dealers, whose bitter competition creates the film's loudest noise. The uncomfortable friction between what these characters represent, and their cartoonish portraits, edges a dull film towards offensiveness.
It's hard to accept that Robert De Niro, whose vital presence in such films as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull remains so fresh, so vivid in the memory, is 66. He seems to have no such problems himself, embracing his age much more readily, say, than his great rival Al Pacino. And he's on good form in Everybody's Fine, as an ageing widower who goes on the road in an effort to spend time with his children, unaware of the reason they're avoiding him.
Lest anyone imagine this is a riff on Tokyo Story, whose young people were a selfish bunch intolerant of their parents, it's worth pointing out that the source is the 1990 Italian film Stanno Tutti Bene; moreover, the adult siblings here – a believable clan played by Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore and Kate Beckinsale – actually have their dad Frank's interests at heart, keeping a secret they fear will break him. For his part, Frank knows that his children have never found him the most approachable fellow. His trip, against the advice of his doctor, is a belated attempt to connect with them.
Those who bemoan De Niro's descent in recent years into hammy overacting will be pleased to see that, when presented with a half-decent script, the subtlety and stillness that marked his great days return. His performance here is as without vanity as it is full of infinitesimal detail, tiny glances and gestures that convey the tremulous reaching out of a man only now realising the mistakes he may have made in the past.
Of the younger actors Sam Rockwell shines the brightest, as a modest, introspective musician troubled by the knowledge that he has failed to meet his father's lofty expectations. We're reminded that the most conspicuous absentee of this year's Oscar nominations is Rockwell's amazing turn in Moon. His time will come.
De Niro's has, of course. And now he's playing gramps. If Everybody's Fine is a tad too understated, and in need of the light touch of director Kirk Jones's earlier features Waking Ned and Nanny McPhee, it's nevertheless a quietly affecting piece. And worthwhile for the sight of Johnny Boy/ Travis Bickle/Jake LaMotta doing the household chores and pumping up the inflatable pool.
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