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The City of Mass Destruction

Micmacs (2009)

Bruno Calvo/Sony Pictures Classics

Bazil (Dany Boon) had the bad luck as a child to lose his father, a bomb disposal expert, in an accident with a land mine. Thirty years later, he has the bad luck to be shot in the head as a bystander to a drive-by shooting. Bazil eventually exits the hospital with nowhere to go and the bullet still in his brain, too dangerous to remove. On the streets of Paris, he soon encounters a fellow beggar, Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who takes him back to Micmacs, a shelter made entirely from salvaged goods beneath a Parisian underpass. There — with the cheerful assistance of the other homeless outcasts — he decides to orchestrate his revenge. That’s revenge against the C.E.O. of the manufacturer of the landmine (André Dussollier) that killed his father, and of the C.E.O. of the arms-dealing company (Nicolas Marié) that made the bullet in his head.

In 1991, Jean-Pierre Jeunet scored an international triumph with “Delicatessen,” which demonstrated how a French apartment block with a butcher shop on the ground floor survives after an apocalypse. Then in 2001 he surpassed himself with “Amélie,” giving the world Audrey Tautou as the lonely young woman in modern Paris determined to help those around her by cheerful — and not entirely selfless — good deeds. “Amélie” is a beloved film, but a great many people found its whitewashed depiction of modern France embarrassing. So “Micmacs” is an attempt to shut Mr. Jeunet’s critics up, with timely subject matter, reference to the problems of the modern world and black people in a variety of key parts. But every black character in the film is explicitly identified as African, and he or she is a cleaner, a nanny, a writer whose use of language is a joke to his friends or a gun-crazed terrorists. To put it politely, this is not progress.

The further trouble is that Mr. Jeunet has tried to meld his trademark whimsy onto a subject — the effect guns and bombs have on people — that is not remotely whimsical. You can have all the astonishing set design that you want and location shots of Parisian streets leading to impressive explosions, but these cannot disguise that the film’s tone is as wrong as can possibly be. To further wrong foot the film, the whimsy that does exist goes nowhere. Little repeated motifs (such as the dancing machines, the suitcases, old movies, coin tosses and the relics) are established and then forgotten. Back story for several of the minor characters is laid out without any payoff. The lead actress can tie herself into all the knots she wants (literally; Julie Ferrier is an outrageous contortionist and her talents are integral to the film, although it is the height of stupidity to repeatedly show her hiding in refrigerators); but if she doesn’t even have a name, it’s hard to care about her. Mr. Boon is a superstar in France and a gifted physical comedian, but when the hero could drop dead at any instant then he should experience some peril that can’t be dissipated by thinking about zebras.

Worst of all, there is a brief homage to “Delicatessen” about a third of the way through. If it had appeared in a movie by any other director in the world, it would have been unutterably charming. For Mr. Jeunet to pull that rabbit back out of the hat shows he knows he has nothing fresh to offer. “Micmacs” is superficially affecting despite itself, but since it desperately wants to be loved by everyone, it ends up appealing to no one at all.


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