Are the Wachowski brothers the new George Lucas?
It wasn’t so long ago that the question would have been an implied compliment. But Lucas’s cinematic reputation has taken a (deserved) beating in recent years, and it’s in this latter sense that I suggest the comparison. Like Lucas, the Wachowskis quickly graduated from small, character-driven cinema (Bound is still my favorite of their movies) to special-effects-laden blockbusters (the Matrix trilogy). And, like Lucas, as they have focused more and more on the digitized environments in which their stories play out, they are less and less interested in the human beings trapped within them.
That, at least, is the impression given by Speed Racer, a vertiginous whirlwind of primary colors with very little at its center. The plot, based on the 1960s Japanese anime cartoon import, is at once childishly simple and maddeningly convoluted. The simple version: Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is a gifted young race car driver--with a name like that, a career in academia is pretty much off the table--whose family doubles as his race team: Pops (John Goodman), Mom (Susan Sarandon), girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), pesky little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), and peskier pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim (“Willy”). After he declines the corporate sponsorship of giant Royalton Industries, its CEO (Roger Allam) tries to destroy said family, and it’s up to Speed to save them by, well, basically driving really fast and winning a couple of races. As for the convoluted version: Suffice to say there are various plans for leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers, which occasion a series of alliances and counter-alliances involving a wide cast of crooks, car drivers, and corporate titans, among them Racer X (Matthew Fox), a masked mystery man who may or may not be Speed’s long-lost and presumed-dead brother. This may be the first film ever marketed toward teens (and pre-teens) that revolves so entirely around efforts to manipulate corporate stock prices.
The film’s aesthetic might be described indelicately, though not inaccurately, as resembling the upchuck of a child who has just eaten a boxful of crayons. Its cities shine like Lucas-scapes frosted by Willy Wonka; its Day-Glo costumes and interiors make The Umbrellas of Cherbourg look drab by comparison. In the many race scenes, the cars swerve and slide across courses whose serpentine impossibility rivals the knotty creations of a twelve-year-old set loose with yards of Hot Wheels track. There’s a slipperiness to the movie’s narrative structure as well, with any reference to a past event treated as grounds for a discursive loop of backstory.
It actually works pretty well for the film’s opening set piece, a race (of course) that stylishly spins off more flashbacks (about Speed’s childhood, his brother’s death, his first meeting with Trixie, etc.) than an entire season of “Lost.” But not long after that race is run, Speed Racer begins running out of gas. Subsequent contests do little to improve on the first, and the novelty of the animated universe quickly begins to tire. It doesn’t help that, for all its technical wizardry, the Wachowskis’ dizzying choreography does a surprisingly poor job of conveying what, exactly, is going on in any given race. It’s hard to enjoy the thrill of automotive competition when the only way of telling where the cars are in relation to one another is by listening to the announcers’ overeager play by play.
Worse still are the moments when Speed Racer slows down. The cast is solid, but the performances feel half-hearted and rote. As with Lucas’s latter Star Wars pictures, it often seems as though background and foreground have traded places, with the former the subject of the filmmakers’ passion and the latter treated as a tiresome necessity. With the exception of Allam, who plays his corporate villain with relish, everyone is going through the motions, mouthing dialogue (“I feel like I’m caught in a tailspin and nothing makes sense,” “You think you can drive a car and save the world? It doesn’t work like that”) even they seem to recognize as third-rate. A particular disappointment is Ricci, a master of bone-dry irony here flattened into a caricature of perkiness. The contrast with Iron Man, whose cartoonish characters were nonetheless brought delightfully to life, could hardly be less flattering.
Speed Racer intends to convey a sense of heedless momentum, but it drags painfully. It’s difficult to shake a vague sense of despair upon discovering that that The Big Race That Will Change Everything, which concludes around the movie’s 90-minute mark, does not in fact change anything, but rather serves as set-up for another Big Race That Will etc., etc. As the movie enters this final lap you, too, may find yourself pleading: Stop, Speed Racer, stop!