Thursday, May 15, 2008

No go on 'Speed Racer'

The live action adaptation of the 1960s anime cult classic “Speed Racer” quite literally gave me a headache. Not only that, the throbbing migraine still lingered the next morning. Seriously.

Written and directed by The Wachowski Brothers of “Matrix” fame, the movie is a bloated, over-stylized assault on the eyes and ears that somehow manages to be equal parts maddening and sleep-inducing.

The plot of the film should be simple enough, but the Wachowskis manage to make it awfully convoluted. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch, “Into the Wild”) loves to race, it is all he knows. He is supported by his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) and a loving family including his parents (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon) and an annoying little brother (Paulie Litt). When Speed refuses to sell out he’s thrown into a world of cutthroat spies and is forced to join with rival Racer X (Matthew Fox, “Lost”) to survive.

Sound silly? Well, it is and that is OK. So was the show. But the film isn’t presented with a tongue-in-cheek sense of fun. If anything the film takes the material seriously. The film’s feeble attempts at humor involve the mischievous brother and his pet monkey. If a monkey throwing feces into a bad guy’s face is your idea of comic genius then “Speed Racer” will have you howling. The film is pitched to kids, but with humor like that it is pandering to them instead of engaging them.

The Wachowskis start with a color palate that nicely captures the feel of the cartoon, but the problem is they don’t stop there. They turn everything up to a nauseating neon that looks like a cotton candy machine exploded over the Vegas strip.

On top of that, the Wachowskis use a style meant to emulate the show in which close-ups of characters are placed in the foreground while action, often a flashback, happens in the background. It is an interesting effect the first few times but gets olds fast. Once the film establishes its look, it just keeps repeating itself and quickly becomes stale.

The races, which should be the highlight of the film, have no sense of tension since it is clear that everything is computer generated. Suspense builds when an audience believes a character is truly in danger. Even a film full of effects should create that feeling. The Wachowskis knew this in “The Matrix,” having the actors do much of their own stunt work, which was then seamlessly integrated with cutting edge special effects.

But with “Speed Racer,” The Wachowski Brothers make no attempt to hide the artifice of the cars, race tracks and surrounding settings. The races are also edited in such a frantic manner as to be completely incomprehensible. You’d need to eat a dozen chocolate-covered coffee beans and wash them down with a four-pack of Red Bull just to keep up with the action.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that buried under all the visual trickery there are hints of what could’ve been. There is a good message about the struggle between corporate and independent business and the importance of family. The performances are better than the material, and, when the film slows down for a second, Goodman and Sarandon are able to have nice, tender moments with Hirsch. But those moments only remind you that you could be watching a good movie, instead of the completely disposable mess that is "Speed Racer."

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