Jean-Pierre Jeunet offers three cinematic strong suits. He’s very good at being quirky, French, and a “visual storyteller.” Of course, he’s powerless to overcome the first two traits, but the third aspect of his filmmaking identity should be a trait all moviemakers would want to court—pictorial narration is the job description. Of course, what we really mean is that, like Terry Gilliam and Terrence Malick, Jeunet isn’t really so great with plot or character. He’s more interested in surrealistic imagery, which is maybe reinforced by him being all quirky and French. Unfortunately, so is this film.
It’s a question of how much oddball cinema one can endure, like getting sugar or caffeine overdoses. In Micmacs, the man who made Delicatessan (deliciously dark) and Amélie (cloyingly cute) just pours on the junk calories, while wildly careening through various filmmaking traditions. We soon wonder why Jeunet didn’t make this film a silent homage au Jacques Tati (Vacation, Playtime), telling the tale of a man who was killed while defusing a landmine, whose son grows up a video store clerk only to become a victim himself of an arms maker’s stray bullet. Adopted by a ragtag band of social marginals living in the Paris dump, our hero Bazil (Dany Boon) takes the rest of the film to engineer a complicated caper. It’s nerds versus merchants of death. Meanwhile, the restlessly clever Jeunet borrows extensively from Howard Hawks’s noir classic The Big Sleep.
In the end, you may feel it’s wrongheaded to make a whimsically funny film about warmongers, particularly the kind who make bombs that are left in places where children can walk on them. This film is cute when it ought to be savage. It’s not that anti-war comedies can’t be great—Duck Soup and Dr. Strangelove offer definitive killing jokes. But for each of those great movies comes a dud like Billy Jack, Toys, and now Micmacs to prove that mayhem and insanity can’t be laughed away with quirky pictures. In the matter of atrocities, the jokes need to be seriously funny, too.