Monday, May 19, 2008

Raised Eyebrows

“I can’t do it. I just can’t do this one,” I said to my friend. I was talking about the film opening that weekend, SPEED RACER. Ordinarily, we’d be going to see the new big release but this time I was begging off. From the ads and clips I’d seen it just looked like a nightmare. I couldn’t do it, I said. I honestly wanted to look forward to my weekend.

Then my friend saw it on opening day and was favorable. Soon after I read Dennis Cozzalio’s passionate, well-mounted defense of the film. Then my friend Mojo called me one night as he was working on his own thoughts. He liked it too and wanted to hear what I had to say, automatically assuming I’d seen it already. Almost any other time he would have been right. After telling me how he felt and why he liked the movie, I began to think. This obviously wasn’t a conspiracy. We’re talking about intelligent, unrelated people that I trust defending a badly-reviewed film and speaking as somebody who has defended the merits of ISHTAR since opening day, who thinks 1941 has some of the best sequences in all of Spielberg, I could relate. So, I realized, I was going to have to see SPEED RACER and give it an honest shot. It’s still playing at the Chinese, there was a good chance it wouldn’t be very crowded and by the time I went to see it I’d already been to Tiki Ti the other night for a few drinks so the weekend wasn’t going to be a total loss. Plus, I felt inclined to like the movie, since several friends already did. Sometimes you need to keep an open mind about these things.

SPEED RACER has some of the most ambitious visuals seen in the past decade, but it’s made by filmmakers with enough intelligent awareness to bring a degree of modulation to what is put within the frame. Contrary to what I had thought going in, there are scenes which feature characters simply sitting down and having a conversation, with no wacko edits or camera movement to distract from what’s being said. There is definitely a degree of pace and intent throughout the film which truly indicates that the people behind it are paying attention to the craft of what they are doing. And it has to be said that some of what is onscreen is genuinely spectacular to look at.

It’s too bad that there was so little about the movie that I actually liked. The honest truth is that I was never particularly interested or engaged by much of anything in SPEED RACER. I didn’t find anything about it particularly enjoyable. I was never wondering what was going to happen next. I never felt compelled to exclaim, “Wow!” Everything in the movie is so visually extravagant that by a certain point nothing is. These problems became apparent to me very early on during an extended racing sequence where it seemed like it was going on way past the point where I could be surprised by any of the visual trickery that was being displayed and beats of “Did you see this shot? And this? AND THIS??!!” felt like they were being repeated multiple times beyond any point that was necessary. And this feeling continued through the movie with scenes, racing and otherwise, constantly feeling like they were going on twice as long as was necessary resulting in a movie that runs an absurdly long 135 minutes. Considering how the movie is about cars that leap and zoom around, the film feels plodding and heavy when is should be nimble and zip by in what feels like the blink of an eye. My issues with the story—fairly archetypal good guy-bad guy stuff with some sideplots that reminded me of long-dormant memories of seeing THE LOVE BUG when I was a kid—isn’t how simple or complicated it is, or the evil corporations but that it feels like there’s a 100 minute movie somewhere in there that they never bothered to find in the writing stage. The story, the basic essence of what the film is, didn’t warrant such a running time and it didn’t seem particularly well-told anyway.

Maybe part of this is me. I’m past the point of being impressed by insane CGI effects. I have no prior experience with SPEED RACER. And I don’t have a particular fetish for Japanese anime so I’m going to be lost when the film makes nods in that direction. Is this my just desserts for knowingly grinning when Tarantino brings a pertinent Morricone composition into a scene in DEATH PROOF? I get what he’s going for and I can’t be blamed if everyone else doesn't get an Argento reference so with this film is it just my problem? I’m not sure it is, since if there were anything here that I could latch onto or get excited by, I’d like to think that prior knowledge of the source material wouldn’t be necessary. And I don’t think I’m incapable of enjoying what is essentially a movie for kids. What am I supposed to do, list my favorite Pixar titles? SPEED RACER is not a nightmare, which was my biggest fear. But it’s not any fun either.

Compounding that lack of fun is an unfortunate performance by Emile Hirsch. His internal style worked extremely well in INTO THE WILD—hell, I liked him in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR—but here it feels like a hole in the center of the film, a lead with no zip, no oomph, no real pulse to him. I’m not looking for somebody to be Adam West and treat it like a goof, but shouldn’t the lead in SPEED RACER give the impression that he actually enjoys being Speed Racer? This same weekend I had my own John Phillip Law memorial screening of the DANGER:DIABOLIK DVD and was struck by how he, in creating his character, managed to blend in perfectly with the unreal world of that movie, something Hirsch never seems to have any clue how to pull off. There are points where it feels like SPEED RACER is willingly cutting around Hirsch’s presence in scenes, hurting any chance of an emotional connection with who is supposed to be the film’s main character. As Racer X, Matthew Fox has a similar chilliness and he would have been equally inappropriate as the lead in this world, but since his character doesn’t have such requirements his very presence makes him one of the most interesting characters here.

Christina Ricci is also terrific as Trixie, looking more like a human extension of this unreal setting than anyone else here. When she raises her eyebrow enticingly at Speed in a few scenes it manages to be more impressive than a lot of the effects. Too bad no one noticed this while making it. As the main villain, Roger Allam does a pretty good Christopher Hitchens impression but it’s slightly hampered by the fact that it’s tough to come off as (sometimes) evil as the real thing. The monkey is pretty good, but he’s less effective because he has to play all his scenes with Speed Racer’s little brother and by the point that the little kid had comically stowed away only to unexpectedly turn up later under ‘wacky’ circumstances for what seemed like the tenth time I found myself hoping that they’d toss the little brat out of Trixie’s helicopter to teach him a lesson. Have I mentioned that in real life I actually like kids a lot?

I don’t dismiss the technical accomplishments in SPEED RACER any more than I dismiss some of the genuinely astonishing sections of HEAVEN’S GATE, to name another film vilified from the instant it was released. But there was nothing about the movie to lift me out of my seat and appreciate it. My biggest response while watching the film was to wonder when it was going to end and several hours after it did I found that I’d forgotten a lot of it already. I’m not going to do a snarky ‘the critics were right!’ thing but within its nonstop visual madness, I got no charm, no joy. Ultimately, it just didn’t work for me. I’m sure that sooner or later somebody’s going to come forward to make a movie with these effects innovations and blow everyone out of the water. At least, I hope that happens. For now, I’m just glad that I won’t have to ever sit through SPEED RACER again.

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