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Round the Bend:
The Wachowski Brothers' Speed Racer

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Warner Bros.)

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Friday, May 09, 2008


Speed Racer
Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski
(Warner Bros.)

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

From the start, Andy and Larry Wachowski have been full of it — they never really wanted to fight the Matrix, they wished to become its servants. And that’s what Speed Racer, the first film they’ve directed since the anticlimactic 2003 releases of the second and third installments of The Matrix franchise, openly heralds: worship of an almost completely digitized, green-screened, synthetic world — a virtual universe existing unto itself with no real referents beyond and no air within.

Flattening screen space with live-action/CGI mash-ups, retro-futuristic candy-colored pop art décor and screen wipes led by cut-out character heads speaking in uppercase comic-strip declarations — a sort of back-and-forth curtain of moving, exclamatory faces — the Wachowski Brothers have created an all-encompassing paean to unobstructed kineticism. It’s a style befitting its gizmo-aided and physically impossible auto-racing subject matter as well as the source material, the Sixties Japanese anime revived in recent years by kitsch-friendly nostalgia (peak period: early to mid-Nineties, when Eric Stolz’s slacker dope dealer could be seen sporting a Speed Racer T-shirt in that unmatched bible of hip, Pulp Fiction). The meretricious smash-the-system lip service of The Matrix and V for Vendetta, which the Wachowskis scripted, has been thankfully and actually refreshingly cast aside: Speed Racer espouses some sort of vague, convolutedly plotted anti-establishment critique of corporate intrusion into the purity of sport, but hollow protest aside (try to ignore that enormous Warner Bros. logo at the beginning of the film), the film is, at heart (if it has one), a delirious, vapid cartoon that just happens to star human beings.

It certainly couldn’t be more perfectly cast. Emile Hirsch possesses a greaser-inflected, empty-headed steeliness as the titular boyish hero, while Christina Ricci’s round features (eyes, cheeks, even mod-ified hair) make her the perfect anime girlfriend come to life. Susan Sarandon and John Goodman as Speed’s mom and pop bring a seriousness to the art of acting that the film probably doesn’t deserve, though what the Wachowskis truly care about is implementing their special brand of constant motion. The easy comparison would be to video games (one track on which Speed races looks more than a little like the Rainbow Road level from Mario Kart 64), but one or two moments provide a hint of actual cinema — a parallel edited scene, for example, of Speed pitting himself against idolized dead brother Rex’s (Scott Porter) record time, with past and future compared, combined and then split apart. Mostly, however, we’re stuck in a single dimension: Speed and co. toppling competition-fixing trillionaire Royalton (Roger Allam) and speaking in stiff, sitcomesque bubble thoughts about “triple face conductors” while fending off opposing racing teams of neo-Vikings, snakeskin skeazoids, and other assorted oddball road warriors. The endless bludgeoning is set to a staccato orchestra score straight out of Tom and Jerry, who seem to have inspired the film’s Pink Panther-style slapstick ninja fights.

In case it isn’t apparent, it should be mentioned at this point that Speed Racer is an out-and-out kid’s movie — not simply kid-friendly, but a film intended for kids. The biggest tip-off is Spritle (Paulie Litt), Speed’s younger, grammar school-aged brother, who plays kid viewer surrogate, often getting as much screen time as the supposed star of the show. The Wachowskis let nary a scene go by without Spritle and chimpanzee pal Chim Chim (Kenzie and Willy) popping in for a surprise visit, as when excitable, sugar-loving Spritle reeks havoc in Royalton’s industrial park or Chim Chim saves Speed by throwing feces at a bad guy’s face. The entire movie takes place through a child’s eyes, really, opening on Speed as a young boy bored in class and dreaming of racecar driving, and ending with a Spritle-sponsored warning for “cootie-sensitive viewers” who might gag at the sight of Speed and Trixie’s long-delayed kiss. Annoying, but that’s the price you pay when the Wachowskis abandon their usual miscalculated stabs at “seriousness.”

Does it entertain those for whom it’s meant? It’s been a while since I was a kid and I wasn’t sure if Spritle and Chim Chim’s antics were up to wacky snuff, but I was assured of the film’s ability to tap into the immortal, universal appeal of primate humor after overhearing a boy sitting among a large group of children at the press screening I attended. Laughing at the sight of the monkey pulling a face while decked out in sunglasses, he intoned in the succinct, definitive manner in which an aesthete would praise the collected works of Schubert, “I like monkeys.” So there you have it: The Wachowskis have found their audience.

 

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