Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet disappoints with his latest film Micmacs, a frivolous piece of exploitation with pretentions of seriousness. All the quirkiness and whimsy that Juenet perfected in Amélie is shoe-horned into a much darker story here and it simply doesn’t work. The story centers on the quirky (an adjective that will be used a lot in this review) Bazil (the uncharacteristically boring Dany Boon), a man set on revenge. A landmine killed his father in North Africa when Bazil was a small boy. And if that wasn’t traumatizing enough, as an adult he is accidently shot in the head requiring a long convalescence during which the world moved on without him. Jobless, homeless, and penniless, he is adopted by a motley band of junkyard scavengers and lives with them among the refuse of industrial Paris. During a day of scavenging Bazil accidently discovers the factories of rival arms manufacturers across the street from one another: one manufactured the mine that killed his father and the other the bullet that is still lodged in his head. He hatches a plot to undermine the companies and intensify the rivalry between their two presidents.
There is potential here for a wickedly dark comedy, but Jeunet punts and goes the easy way out, sticking with a standard revenge fantasy. His junkyard pals are all absurdly quirky, each with a special skill (conveniently explained as he meets each one) that we know will be useful later in the film. One is a contortionist, another can calculate the weights and compositions of objects with one glance, another can build clever mechanisms from scrap metal, etc. It’s a good thing they needed someone to impersonate the emissary of an African revolutionary or the black guy wouldn’t have had much to do.
I liked some of the intricate schemes they execute, but that wasn’t enough for me to enjoy the movie. I mean what is Jeunet rallying against here? What is he trying to say? Arms dealers are bad people? Everyone knows that already! Even arms dealers know they are rotten people. This is a deadly serious subject and everything is just too quirky and lightweight to deal with the subject properly. It’s a bit like crossing Amélie with Helter Skelter.
Not that a filmmaker couldn’t make a biting satire about arms manufacturers, but it would need to be a lot bolder than what we have here. The rival presidents, wonderfully played by André Dussollier (the narrator of Amélie) and Nicholas Marié (both in the picture on the left), are the easy targets, but they aren’t really the bad guys when we stop to think about it. So what if they sell arms illegally to terrorist organizations and revolutionary juntas? All arms dealers do that, even if it isn’t done directly. That is the dirty secret Micmacs is too timid to take on. The entire system stinks. It’s easy to point the finger at the presidents of the companies, but what about the shareholders who demand dividends without wanting to know too much about how the company turned a profit? (And what kind of ghoulish people knowingly invest in an arms company?) What about the governments that demand their products for their wars? What about the dealers who sell the products of even the most scrupulously legit companies on the black market? What about the drug cartels, organized crime, and power-hungry revolutionaries who actually use them? Why isn’t the man who ordered the mine to be planted that killed Bazil’s father guiltier than the man who manufactured it? Why isn’t the man who pulled the trigger which planted the bullet in Bazil’s head guiltier than the man who sold it to him?
It might feel good in an exploitative movie like this to cast Dussollier and Marié’s characters as the obvious villains, but if Jeunet wanted to make a satire that truly said something he would have asked these questions instead of glazing over them for the obvious gags. He could have still done it with a sense of humor. Stanley Kubrick made a truly funny movie about the insanity of Cold War defense strategy in Dr. Strangelove. There were no obvious villains there; he explored, through comedy, how fear and irrationality were the true enemies, not easy targets like the Premiere of the USSR.
The climax was the most distasteful part of the film. The rival presidents have been kidnapped and are presented with photos of children who had been killed or injured with their weapons. Of course they crumble and beg for forgiveness. This is when I knew Jeunet was just using the somber moral quandary about arms manufacturers and their culpability in how their weapons are used as a cheap tool for an easy story. If he had been at all serious he wouldn’t have needed to show those pictures. But because the movie is so empty-headed about the problem Jeunet felt like he needed the photos to prove how serious he takes it, despite the rest of the picture (including a bit where a massive explosion destroys one of the factories, yet no one appears to have been injured or killed; the workers just emerge from the wreckage with comically surprised expressions without a scrape).
Jeunet’s movies tend to be more style than substance, but most of them, despite ultimately being failures, are worth watching to see a unique visual style, like the frustrating Delicatessen or the uneven The City of Lost Children. His biggest artistic success was Amélie and the difference between that movie and the other two was Jeunet expunged most of the thematic and cinematographic darkness from Amélie. His style is more suited to fancy and whimsy rather than taking on complex ethical issues (or, rather, cynically using complex ethical issues as a backdrop for a stylized revenge picture). Micmacs fails because the whimsy works against the message. It feels more like a Quentin Tarantino picture – all style, no substance, but oodles of shameless exploitation.