Friday, May 9, 2008

"Speed Racer," a boring blur

Summary: "Speed Racer" has preternaturally bright colors, an ingenious mix of animation and live-action and enough technical wizardry to satisfy the geekosphere, by which I mean folks who prefer "oh wow!" responses to common sense. Still, the movie struck me as a colossal and unrelieved bore, a melding of senseless action and dull exposition that never engages us on an emotional level. This time, the Wachowski brothers (of "The Matrix" series) have adapted and enhanced a '50s Japanese cartoon series. They would have done well to remember that more sometimes really is less.

Unless you're a kid who must see "Speed Racer" to avoid expulsion from the inner sanctum of your clique, you'd do well to appreciate the movie's glories via the trailer. That way you can avoid the Wachowskis' reductive morality, a simplistic view that pits love of the game against corporate exploitation. And once you get accustomed to the movie's wildly eclectic look -- Saturday morning TV on psychedelics -- you may also find it repetitious.

Shattering time-bound narrative structure, the Wachowskis allow their story to leap all over the place, beginning with the title character Speed Racer (Emil Hirsch) as a boy and jumping ahead to Speed as a young man and talented driver. Speed is the second oldest son in the Racer family. In this tipsy segment, Speed's older brother Rex (Scott Porter) gets crosswise with dad (John Goodman), a man who builds racecars and inspires family loyalty.

When Rex dies in a crash, Speed inherits the Racer mantle, and we meet rest of the family. Susan Sarandon plays Speed's mom. She conveniently shows up for heart-to-heart talks when they're needed. Speed also has a younger brother (Paulie Litt), a kid who hangs around with a chimpanzee, a bit of monkey business that seems aimed at very young audiences.

The plot, which hits the screen with the force of shrapnel, thickens when an industrialist named Royalton (Roger Allam sounding as if he's doing a Christopher Hitchens imitation) tries to recruit Speed for his racing team. Royalton promises money and fame and a chance to compete in the Grand Prix, the big enchilada of races in this frenzied universe. Here's a shocker: Royalton's as corrupt as they come. When Speed politely turns down Royalton's offer, this smooth-talking piece of corporate slime tries to initiate him into the horrors of adulthood. He tells Speed that all the races are fixed and that Speed is a naive chump.

The rest of the plot isn't worth recounting, even if it were possible. Know, though, that Christina Ricci shows up as Trixie, Speed' s luscious-looking girlfriend. There's even a part for Richard Roundtree of the "Shaft" series. He plays a retired racer whose exploits once inspired Speed and his dad. Korean rocker Rain portrays another driver.

It takes the Wachowskis more than two hours to sort out a mess of a plot, but the real point here seems to be to create a world that feels like none that we know, thereby allowing younger audiences to lose themselves in a multi-layered swirl of color and action. I'm just not young enough, I guess. The extreme close-ups that floated across the screen made me woozy, and I occasionally found myself looking away from the screen so that I didn't have to put my popcorn bag to air-sick use. The movie seems predicated on the notion that chaos can be fun.

During my self-imposed respites, I began to develop a theory -- albeit a small one. The Wachowskis have taken elements that normally might make us gag -- simple-minded views of the world, undeveloped characters, juvenile humor and pointless speed -- and gotten some of the world's most talented people to work their magic on them. It's what you might get if the great pastry chefs of the world collaborated, swarmed around the kitchen in a mad frenzy and came up with a cupcake. Some will enjoy the icing; others will wonder how so much fuss could produce so little result.


EMC said...

So that's the basic sentiment across the board...but speed racer episodes still bring back fond memories! check out the episodes from free online at Hulu:

patrick said...

The Wachowski bros certainly put a lot of effort into making Speed Racer... the movie overall looked and felt like a cross between anime, a kaleidoscope, that Flintstones movie, a video game and the Dukes of Hazard