Mixed Bag

To say the least, Speed Racer is colorful. Color-overflowing, to say a little more. Color-engulfed. The live-action version of the late-Sixties made-in-Japan TV cartoon (which I never saw) is of course, in our day and age, only partly live-action: real people like Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, and Susan Sarandon inserted into a world of total artifice, a world of Madison Avenue utopianism, pop color, ping-pong nonsequential editing, CGI landscapes, video-game action — although “action” sounds a little precise for the mere motion into which they, and we, are plunged, an Osterizer in smoothie mode. (The auto races possess no more materiality than those in the completely computer-animated Cars, and a lot less clarity.) The Wachowski Brothers, Andy and Larry, have undeniably given the movie a look, and no more deniably given the moviegoer eyestrain. While the thing might to some degree be original in its details (e.g., cut-out figures gliding laterally across the screen, superimposed at the dimension of giants), or anyway original in the new heights to which these details have been piled (even shaving off an inch or two for every “comical” chimpanzee reaction shot), it is not to any degree original in its basic strategy: to wit, no idea is so puny or puerile — an existential racecar driver born and bred for no other purpose, surname Racer, forename Speed — that it cannot be put over with a pumped-up budget, a protracted running time, a surfeit of special effects. Or in other words, no idea so puny or puerile that it cannot be sold, sold, sold. If they were honest, the Wachowskis would surely have to identify not with their individualistic hero but with the villainous corporate manipulator: “People like you,” the hero lets him know, “have way too much money.” People like the Wachowskis.

Coming from a very different place — France, to be literal about it — is OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, a démodé Bond spoof set appropriately in the mid-Fifties and shot scrupulously in the style of the period. What Hollywood production today would impose such self-discipline? Would deny itself a computer and rely on its wits? Director Michel Hazanavicius, a new name over here, evinces a fond remembrance of an era, a screen archetype, and a cinematic vocabulary, and he keeps up a mood of geniality that can blossom into an occasional chuckle, nothing more. The casual, complacent, innocent chauvinism of the Gallic superspy — a Bond, Jacques Bond, if you please — constitutes a legitimate and logical extension of the character, and constitutes at the same time effortless and painless political comment, not so démodé after all. Jean Dujardin, a paragon of self-regard, barely able to sustain forward momentum without freezing into a pose, neither overplays it nor underplays it. He plays it just right.

What Happens in Vegas, what passes these days as a “rom-com” (the very term drips with derision: not fully romantic, not fully comic), pairs perfect strangers in a drunken impulse wedding in Sin City, whence they return to Manhattan with $3 million in disputed winnings (a contrivance copied from Larry David’s Sour Grapes), and are sentenced to six months of working at the marriage before an unsympathetic judge will grant a divorce or unfreeze their assets. What ensues, under director Tom Vaughan, is a belly-crawl to a foregone conclusion. It showcases in a secondary role Lake Bell, to whom I was delightedly introduced in the female lead of Over Her Dead Body, possibly the year’s most underrated movie, not because it was any great shakes but because it was the most overreviled. (I couldn’t figure out why, could only guess that people had felt misled to believe that Eva Longoria was the star of it and had failed to believe their good luck.) I remember mentioning at the time that Bell seemed the sort of actress normally consigned to the bosom-buddy part, the heroine’s confidante, the Joan Cusack, the Judy Greer, and now here she is, in exactly that part. She’s funny three or four times, all the chances she gets. The two principals, selected from the A-list, Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher, are, between them, funny never. They both look as though they were left too long in the oven.

With Then She Found Me, first-time director, co-writer, and co-producer Helen Hunt confers a nice big fat role on Oscar-winning actress Helen Hunt, at an age when roles of any size are fast drying up. (A do-it-yourself movie.) The forty-four-year-old leading lady portrays a thirty-nine-year-old teacher whose biological clock has started ticking loudly. In rapid succession, her new husband abandons her, a potential replacement heaves into view the next morning, her adoptive mother dies, and her unknown birth mother contacts her out of the blue. Oh, and she passes a home pregnancy test, bringing her namby-pamby husband back into the picture. Most of this, a girl-talk toot, is played for dish-the-dirt titters. Bette Midler, as the biological mother, will tend to turn anything into shtick, and the reliable Matthew Broderick and Colin Firth, as the old and new prospects respectively, are pretty much limited to one note apiece. (Salman Rushdie, wildly out of his element, sees the light of day as an obstetrician.) Hunt, however, with her drawn face, downturned mouth, roadmap of worry lines, and courage in displaying all this, appears more like a figure of Greek tragedy, an Electra maybe, even a Medea. A purging outburst of anger at her mendacious mother, the movie’s top highlight, confirms this impression. The denouement, a mile away from the facile Baby Mama, turns out to be unexpectedly touching. Which is an oblique way to say that the preceding had prepared us for less.

Son of Rambow, written and directed by Garth Jennings of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is a sweet nothing, acutely cloying, about the bonding of dissimilar English schoolboys, devil and angel, plus a slightly less adhesive French exchange student with two-toned hair and trend-setting wardrobe, all collaborating together on a video sequel to First Blood for entry in a Young Filmmakers Competition. Cartoon slapstick and tender sentiment coexist unpeacefully, if not mutually destructively.

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