Speed Racer (2008)

Some people actually enjoy a total wreck…

by Adam Miller

I haven't been a fan of the Wachowski brothers' more recent ouevre. As friends know, I have a passionate distaste for V FOR VENDETTA. I thought both MATRIX sequels stunk. And I can't even think of other stuff the slo-mo-bros have produced lately… with the exception of their latest flick, SPEED RACER.

To my knowledge, this film didn't do too well at the box office or with the critics, which in a way is too bad because its far from the worst film to be put out in theaters in the past year. I mean when I KNOW WHO KILLED ME is the critical darling of just about every major… er, uh… Okay so I can't really defend SPEED RACER against its poor reception. It's a bad movie, no doubt about it. It's storyline somehow manages to be laughably shallow (I mean, it's about cartoon racecar driver people) yet also interminably convoluted (double crossed, long-lost, brothers, evil capitalists, monkeys). It's pacing is also all out of joint (lightning fast races intercut with "Wonder Years"-esque flash backs starring John Goodman and Susan Sarandon). It's style is bombastic and gaudy (I say fuck your muted tones sir!). It has more wipes than STAR WARS EPISODE III (most consistently a talking head will wipe across the screen followed by the sound of a crowd roaring). And it has some of the most odious, out-of-place comic relief I've seen in recent times (featuring a monkey and a fat kid who really love candy).

wipe.jpg

Imagine these images scrolling from right to left and you'll get the sense of a basic SPEED RACER wipe.

Don't expect me now to say that, despite all this, SPEED RACER "works," because it doesn't. It's a mess. But somehow I found myself fascinated by just how incongruous the film was. The analogy is obvious, but apt: Going to see SPEED RACER is like going to see Nascar hoping for a wreck. It's a disaster, but it's a fascinating one.

Take for example the mish-mash of scenes involving Goodman and Sarandon working very hard to give serious monologues about their sons growing up and leaving home for the first time (a la "How could it be meaningless? I saw my son become a man. I watched a man with courage and integrity drive the pants off of every other driver on that road. This is not meaningless. This is the reason for a father's life") contrasted with lines like: "Stop steering and start driving. This ain't no dead piece of metal. A car's a living, breathing thing, and she's alive. Feel it talking to you. Telling you what she wants, what she needs. All you gotta do is listen. Close your eyes and listen."

Or how about the action sequences? Ninja's invade Speed's hotel rooms in a botch assassination attempt which turns into a brawl. The choreography starts out hyper-realistic, then devolves into MATRIX-y FX and concludes with John Goodman picking up a ninja, holding him above his head, and spinning him like a baton before flinging him out the window (appropriate sound effects included). All this followed by the lines:

Was that a ninja?
More like a non-ja!

Then of course there's the kid and that damn, damn monkey. Their sole purpose is to interrupt the more dramatic moments of the film so as to keep it kiddie-friendly (I suppose). Comedy according these two (and the Brothers who directed them) boils down to breaking the fourth-wall as much as possible. Thus we get the duo breaking through the screen right before Speed finally gets the girl (Christina Ricci) to warn viewers of possible cootie infection if they don't turn away from the screen at this very moment!??!

The film certainly has some nifty visual effects, but of the barrage of CGI the more subtle effects were the ones that got me. Sure the cars careening around the tracks are fun, but the style is so cartoonish the suspense and exhiliration are undermined. On the other hand, a highly effective use of CGI feature a young Speed doodling in his notebook during class. The notebook then becomes alive and animated, and we go inside of Speed's drawings as he imagines himself racing through his doodled world. The effect is seemless and a ton of fun, unfortunately it comes early in the movie and not much else measures up to its artistry.

Can I recommend SPEED RACER? Certainly not for the average movie going audience. But if you come into the film with the attitude of playing a post-modern film studies game with the directors whacko vision, there is some pleasure to be derived from the mess of their spectacle.

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