starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Matthew Fox
written and directed by The Wachowski Brothers
by Walter Chaw This generation's Tron lands with unsurprisingly little fanfare early in the 2008 blockbuster sweepstakes, the victim of niche nostalgia and bottomless kitsch as well as the theory that total indulgence from all involved will prevent The Wachowski Brothers' Speed Racer from turning out to be their Spruce Goose. I've seen just enough "Speed Racer" cartoons to recognize when people like John Goodman are impersonating badly-drawn '60s television anime (as opposed to Goodman impersonating badly-drawn '60s Hanna-Barbera)--and just enough, too, to futilely hope against hope that there wouldn't be a chimp and a chubby tyke who stow away in a racecar's trunk now and again. But I haven't seen nearly enough of the TV series to want to see more of it, and after enduring the Cool World live-action version of "Speed Racer", I confess I've sort of lost the will to live. In other words, I was never a fan of the cartoon and was mainly interested in this trainwreck on the strength of Bound and The Matrix. Still, I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't take a moment to laud the brothers on their audacity--the very quality I appreciated in the two Matrix sequels, which were, by most analysis, disasters. It seems like sour grapes to knock the picture besides--or at least it seems futile, because the Wachowskis don't appear to care what people think of them along their road to wearing Kleenex boxes on their feet and saving their pee in mason jars. Speed Racer is exhibit one in the case that the Wachowskis aren't in it for praise (they're not going to get any credible praise here) or money (they're already loaded), but rather to luxuriate in the contents of their den's shelves: first Alan Moore comics with V for Vendetta, now this excruciatingly faithful reproduction of an inexplicable camp artifact. Perhaps we should count our blessings that they weren't huge fans of "Voltron."
Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) has only ever wanted to race. His father, Pops (Goodman), builds racecars. His older brother, Rex (Scott Porter), is a racecar driver who dies in a fiery crash. His mom (Susan Sarandon) is a 1950s depiction of motherhood. His girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci, destined for anime, let's face it), is, um, a helicopter pilot? And Speed's younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) would've been played by a little shit like Spencer Breslin a few short years ago. You have a monkey, a series of CGI-crazed racing sequences that are about as tense as that light-cycle duel in Tron, and the fear that epilepsy might be something you can contract from a film edited and lit in such a fashion as this. There's a moment in which the neon-glowing, Tokyo Drift cars go through an ice cave that gave me a sense of the 2001 acid-trip freak out, but it's otherwise a lot of happy horseshit that looks extremely expensive and feels like the view from the wrong end of a telescope. There are ninjas, slapstick numbers in which the fuckwit kid eats candy and passes out with his primate buddy, and this compulsion to make lists instead of trying to tell a story that has no point except, possibly, to demonstrate that the Wachowskis have done their research and managed to compress every single plot and subplot of the show into the longest two-plus hours since the denouement of Return of the King. Following disappointments and recruitment by the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox, ever lost) into a master scheme to blah blah blah blah blah, we find ourselves at the big race where Speed, not a spoiler, triumphs.
I guess it looks cool, like Dr. Seuss sicking up all over a Twister board--cool in an eye-stabbing, brain-deadening way that lowers the collective IQ whilst inspiring some to believe that this razzle-dazzle will be cutting-edge for longer than the duration it takes for the film to tick through the projector. Good actors are asked to say things dubbed onto the round-mouth movements of Japanese avatars, and what's left is probably wondrous for the hardcore, diehard, pathetic-loser contingent. Free of that, the picture is incoherent at the very instant it's simplistic. The action is hard yet easy to follow, the simplistic drama is easy to understand and impossible to feel, and while the strain of not saying the obvious (that it's not about anything) must be showing, the point is that it's not even about imitation. What Speed Racer does is demonstrate the emperor unclothed, the dark side of auteurism, where the worst instincts of artists/demigods are allowed to run riot. Ironically, in this of all places, we see what can happen when filmmakers you've respected get the power to do whatever they want. The very strange thing is that "Speed Racer"'s pleasures, as I tried to ken them once upon a time, had nothing to do with spectacle and very much to do with a combination of childlike joy and the forced, habitual repetition of afternoon syndication on impressionable, bored minds. Speed Racer has rendered the small pleasures of the source into this gaudy, ugly, garish display of vanity and, more poignantly, an extreme yearning for some innocence, some ability to appreciate the small things, that's been lost and can only be approximated in the creators' minds through an extravagant, pathetic pageant. Originally published: May 9, 2008.