Jean-Pierre Jeunet's kooky caper film Micmacs pays tribute to many movies — even itself — but treats Rube Goldberg as its patron saint. Newspaper cartoonist Reuben Goldberg became synonymous with his intricate drawings of gizmos that tackled simple tasks through ridiculous means. In a Rube Goldberg mousetrap, say, the rodent would gnaw a piece of cheese tied to a string attached to a boot that would kick a bowling ball, sending it down a ramp until it knocked over a broom handle propping up an anvil balanced over the mouse until, "Splat!" That sort of thing.
Jeunet revels in such whimsical wind-up games in nearly all of his films, particularly Amélie and Delicatessen, but Micmacs offers almost nothing but convoluted cause-and-effect stunts. Admirable effort goes into Micmacs' construction, but Jeunet's narrative contraption leaves his characters no room to breathe.
Freak acts of violence bookend the life of hapless Bazil. A land mine blew his father to smithereens when Bazil was just a boy. He grows up to be a morose video store clerk (played by Dany Boon), wont to mouth the words along to Hollywood classics such as The Big Sleep. One night, a shoot-out takes place in front of his store and a stray bullet lodges in his head. Bazil's surgeon flips a coin and opts to leave the bullet in his skull, rather than risk a fatal operation.
When Bazil finally leaves the hospital, he discovers that strangers claimed both his apartment and his job, and he becomes a homeless street performer. It's unclear whether his eccentric, Chaplin-esque behavior predated his accident. In fact, much of the film might even be a movie buff's hallucination (although Jeunet is coy about that interpretation). Eventually, Bazil falls under the wing of a de facto family of junkyard scavengers, each of whom has a sideshow-style talent. There's a human cannonball (Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon), a winsome human calculator (Marie-Julie Baup) and a wizened inventor (Michel Crémadès), who happens to be a strongman. Romantic sparks even fly between Bazil and a google-eyed contortionist (Julie Ferrier, who's a little better at bending than acting).
Bazil's new life finds a larger purpose when he discovers that the munitions company that constructed his father's land mine, as well as the rival firm that built his bullet, face each other from across the same Parisian street. When Bazil sets eyes on the fortress-like buildings, we hear soaring music on the soundtrack. Jeunet then moves his camera to reveal a full orchestra on the steps behind our hero. Bazil's friends volunteer to aid him in a series of escalating pranks and heists that play the arms dealers against each other — a premise reminiscent of films ranging from A Fistful of Dollars to Miller's Crossing.
Firing cannons across the Seine and plucking cars off the ground with huge magnets, Micmacs' set pieces suggest what would happen if Terry Gilliam hijacked the Ocean's Eleven franchise. The camerawork and art direction prove endlessly inventive and full of such impressive creations as the friends' subterranean lair, seemingly constructed of old appliances and other scrap. Jeunet has never seemed less interested in developing his characters, however, and he populates Micmacs with borderline-grotesque caricatures defined by their pathologies.
The director's underrated previous film, A Very Long Engagement, powerfully condemned the consequences of trench warfare in World War I. Micmacs' displays of sympathy to the mothers of victims of armed conflict comes off more disingenuous. The film's arms dealers feel more like bad guys of convenience. While they deserve what they get, Micmacs ignores the blood on the hands of their multinational customers who actually use their weapons.
In its native France, Micmacs' full title is Micmacs à tire-larigot, which translates as "Nonstop Shenanigans." Audiences hoping for more heart than artifice from Jeunet may call shenanigans on his Rube Goldberg gimmicks.