Speed Racer: On the fast track to nowhere

The souped-up, tricked out film puts anime in overdrive

SPEED RACER
directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski
area theaters, starts Friday

Converting a fondly remembered cartoon series—one of the first Japanese animes syndicated on American TV—into a prospective franchise, the Matrix masters Larry and Andy Wachowski have taken another step toward the total cyborganization of the cinema.

Even more than most summer-season f/x fests, Speed Racer is a live action/animation hybrid and, what's more, proud of it. Bright, shiny, and button-cute, the movie is a self-consciously tawdry trifle. What you see is what you get. "Production design" is a poor term to describe Owen Paterson's avidly garish look. Gaudier than a Hindu temple's roof, louder than the Las Vegas night, Speed Racer is a cathedral of glitz. The movie projects a Candy Land topography of lava-lamp skies and Hello Kitty clouds—part Middle Earth, part mental breakdown—using a beyond-Bollywood color scheme wherein telephones are blood orange, jet planes electric fuchsia, and ultra-turquoise is the new black.

It's The Jetsons on LSD: Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer
courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
It's The Jetsons on LSD: Emile Hirsch as Speed Racer

Call it Power Kitsch, Neo-Jetsonism, or Icon-D—this film could launch a movement. Speed Racer's mise-en-scène could just as easily have been created by a dream (or perhaps nightmare) team of pop artists: The futuristic, multihued skyscrapers seem a figment of Kenny Scharf's imagination; the glazed female leads might be Jeff Koons sculptures sporting Takashi Murakami accessories.

For me, this carousel, which clocks in at a leisurely 135 minutes, is more fun to describe than to ride. Blithely nonlinear for its first half-hour—the past merging with the present and shifting again to flashbacks—Speed Racer has a narrative at once simpleminded and senseless, albeit touchingly faithful to Tatsuo Yoshida's original cartoons. Here, too, the eponymous hero (Emile Hirsch)—child of the auto-inventor Pops Racer (John Goodman, man-mountain of goodwill) and Mom Racer (self-Stepfordized Susan Sarandon)—is born to drive the family Mach 5, particularly once older brother Rex is seemingly vaporized in a wreck. And drive Speed does—if not quite as well as the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox).

For all the excited color commentary ("Speed Racer is driving straight up a cliff face!"), the races lack drama. Each spectacle is an autonomous, enjoyably lurid blur, with crack-ups as convoluted as they are inconsequential. As choreographed as the action is, it lacks only printed sound effects—WHAM! BLAM! POW!—to signal the Wachowskis' facetiousness.

After the relative failures of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, and the widespread disapproval inspired by their tastelessly anarcho-terrorist V for Vendetta, the brothers have opted for family-friendly fluff. In place of irony, there's a sprinkling of camp sentimentality. Speed Racer is abetted by plucky girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, reliving her lysergic past as Addams Family ingenue). With her Louise Brooks bob set off by a pair of red barrettes, Trixie is even more of a porcelain doll than Mom. The clan includes a tubby little brother (Paulie Litt) with a bratty pet chimp. Everyone has a role: As Pops and his engineer, Sparky (Kick Gurry), rebuild the Mach 5 for the Grand Prix, Mom makes the peanut-butter sandwiches.

Like The Matrix (or its engagingly primitive precursor, the DOS-era Disney relic Tron), Speed Racer gives the not-unrealistic impression of taking place inside a computer. But love, hate, or ignore it, The Matrix proposed a social mythology. Speed Racer is simply a mishmash that, among other things, intermittently parodies the earlier film's pretensions: His path plotted by a mysterious cabal, Speed Racer could be the One. Indeed, in the grand first-installment climax, messianic frenzy merges with market research as the young racer's "upset" victory bids not only to change the face of high-stakes race-car driving but the nature of reality itself: "It's a whole new world!" This hopeful self-promotion is especially ridiculous in that Speed Racer—like The Matrix and the plot-heavy V for Vendetta—ostentatiously traffics in left-wing allegory.

The villain (Roger Allam, V for Vendetta's fascist talk-show host) is a slavering tycoon, while Speed Racer is, as his mother tells him, an artist. In the movie, racing is itself a racket. Multinationals sponsor drivers, fix races, and use the sport to drive up the market price of their stock—so the Wachowski brothers might once have regarded Hollywood. Ideologically anti-corporate, their previous productions aspired to be something more than mindless sensation; Speed Racer is thrilled to be less. It's the delusions minus the grandeur.

 
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