Micmacs, a French nonsense word that roughly translates as "shenanigans," is the apt title of the latest movie mischief from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director and cowriter of Amélie. The new movie is a disarming tale of misfits who conspire to demobilize an arms manufacturer.
Spiced with melancholy and magic, Micmacs is an imaginative live-action film with the playfulness of an animation like Ratatouille. Similarly, it is a fable of subterraneans who change how life is lived above ground in a Paris that is both retro and modern.
Bazil (Dany Boon), the reluctant ringmaster of this circusy adventure, loses his father in a land-mine explosion, and years later nearly loses his life in a drive-by shooting. When he leaves the hospital to return to his work as a video-store clerk, he has already been replaced. Like Charlie Chaplin's Tramp, he leaves the familiar to brave the cruel world.
Among the artifacts Bazil brings with him to his new life are the spent land mine that took his father, stamped with its manufacturer's logo, and the bullet that almost took him, bearing the seal of another munitions-maker.
Fortuitously - the Jeunet-verse is governed by the accident and coincidence - Bazil finds a safe haven, peopled with misfits. Their junkyard bunker is decorated in Steampunk style, with belle époque plumbing retrofitted for millennial purposes by an inventor whose bizarre contraptions recall those of Rube Goldberg.
Among the others in this subterranean arsenal are a contortionist (Julie Ferrier) who can fold herself into a carrier bag, a human cannonball (Dominique Pinon), and a human calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), capable of reckoning distances and dividing fractions with amazing accuracy.
Like the seven dwarfs, these outcasts with intriguing specialties are cared for by a mother hen (Yolande Moreau), who cooks and cleans.
One day, as Bazil tools through a city that resembles a sepia-tinted picture postcard, he sees a familiar logo - that of the land-mine manufacturer. Across the street, another familiar brand catches his eye - that of the munitions-maker. With the help of his inventive friends, Bazil hatches a plan to sabotage both factories, destroying explosives in order to save lives.
Jeunet hangs a lot of heavy plotting on a flimsy narrative thread, and the comic suspense of Micmacs is in watching whether that thread will hold or snap.
The film's appeal is much like one of the inventor's oddball contraptions: It shouldn't work, but it does. Charmingly.