French comedian Dany Boone plays Bazil. As a child his father was killed in a mishap with a discarded landmine, his mother sent to an institution, and Bazil wound up an orphanage where the overseeing nuns treated the children like tiny convicts. Grown up and clerking in a video store, a stray bullet from a drive-by catches Bazil in the dome. Removing the bullet could leave him a vegetable, so the doctor flips a coin and leaves the slug where it is. As a result Bazil could drop dead at any moment.
Released from the hospital, he finds himself evicted from his apartment and replaced at his job. With nowhere to go, and imminent death looming in front of him, he scrapes by performing on the streets with a number of wacky, Chaplin-like routines. He meets Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle), an ex-con who introduces him to his improvised family of fellow discarded misfits, including Fracasse (Dominique Pinon), Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), Remington (Omar Sy), La Môme Caoutchouc (Julie Ferrier), and contortionist Tambouille (Yolanda Moreau). They live in a giant garbage pile, scavenging and refurbishing things they find in the trash. The inviting, underground home is full of tools and art and machines made entirely from refuse. Think “Street Trash”, but exponentially more huggable.
After being taken in, Bazil is out scavenging and happens across two competing weapons manufacturers, one that made the mine that killed his father, the other that made the bullet lodged in his frontal lobe. He enlists his newly found compatriots in a plan to exact an intricate and poetic vengeance on the people responsible for the most traumatic events in his life.
The interior of the garbage house provides Jeunet ample opportunity for the visual games he is so fond of playing. Every inch of the set is covered spontaneous sculptures, modified Rube Goldberg contraptions, or some robotic marionettes that dance and cause everyone to clasp their hands to their chests and sigh at how beautiful the simple things in life are.
As a whole “Micmacs” is visually breathtaking, from the intricate sets of the trash heap, to the rooftops and cityscapes that hearken back to films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Metropolis”. But that’s to be expected. No one ever accused Jeunet of making ugly films.
Despite the visual gymnastics and quirky cast of characters, the majority of “Micmacs” feels hollow, like it is all style and no substance. The film focuses so much on the zany, Tex Avery elements that it shortchanges the meatier aspects that could have filled out the story. The heavier stuff—like Slammer spending 75% of his life in prison, and the callous indifference to human life displayed by arms manufacturers—is skipped over in favor of cute antics, like Bazil’s hybrid of pidgin gibberish and sign language that he uses to communicate. It is frustrating. You want there to be something more, but for most of the film there isn’t.
Near the end “Micmacs” finally take a more serious tone, fleshing out the weightier ingredients, and this is where the film works the best, where it achieves a balance. The idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of the story and characters are still there, and it is still fun, but there are also things that haven’t been present until then, like legitimate emotional connections and tension, that draw you into the story. You’re not fully engaged until late in the movie, you’ve been kept at arms length when it would benefit the film to bring you in.
I get that Jeunet is going for a Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton kind of thing, that he is trying to tell a story visually, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t explore some of the deeper elements. While “Micmacs” is still a really good, fun movie, it could have been all of that and something so much more at the same time.