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Wild and Crazy Guy

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's latest film, "Micmacs," shows boundless imagination has its limits.

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In “Micmacs,” two men are shot from a cannon. A woman is smuggled into an apartment in a cardboard box. Things that usually only happen in a circus or cartoons abound. The movie is like a combination of the two with a caper film about a group of eccentrics taking revenge on a couple of corporations. It's chock-full of the characteristics that have come to define the work of its maker, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who loves turning whimsy and episodic vignettes into epic struggles between good and evil.

Sometimes cited as the French Terry Gilliam, the one-time animator is best known for “Amelie,” in which an eccentric (Audrey Tautou) takes justice into her own hands. Some of his other films are darker and weirder, and one, “A Very Long Engagement,” is actually set in an identifiable time. But they generally follow the same pattern, concerned with archetypes familiar if you've seen more than one of the director's movies: The corrupt power; the charming and innately good individualists opposing it; the inevitable triumph of the latter and positive imagination defeating its distorted, negative opposite.

In “Micmacs” the evildoers are arms dealers, whose wares coincidentally maim Parisian video-store clerk Bazil (French comedy star Dany Boon), after they blew up his father when Bazil was just a boy. The injury puts Bazil out of employment and on the street, where he meets a colorful and quirky group of junk salvagers who take him into their cavern carved into the side of a dump. Of course there are no rotting banana peels or carrion birds here, just discarded scraps of metal and rusting antiques the band turns into elaborate contraptions.

Why they do this isn't quite clear, but less than 30 minutes or so into “Micmacs” it's obvious that if you were looking for realism you bought the wrong ticket. There are Tex Avery cartoons, complete with Droopy Dog, that adhere more to the bounds of physics. It's much more important to the movie to cram in as many oddballs and creative ideas as possible.

During half a dozen or so rapid-fire introductions of the junk salvagers, I was able to jot down Calculator, a woman whose “mother was a seamstress and father was a surveyor,” which has somehow turned her into an adding machine; Elastic Girl, who for some reason lives in the refrigerator; Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who talks in maxims; and Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), the cook, who appears to exist in order to add some extra mugging. As a group, they can leave you feeling either bathed in the warm glow of overwhelming cuteness or strangled by it.

Jeunet is laying it on very thick. The salvagers help Bazil by performing a series of pranks on the arms dealers, who happen to flank sides of the same street, convincing each it's being attacked by the other. The idea that bad guys such as arms dealers need to be taken out by creativity is a nice one, but it gets buried under the ever-increasing outlandishness that's elaborately concocted to drive home the point.

The group breaks into a mailbox, in just one example, by filling it full of water in a series of maneuvers that takes half their combined efforts and about 10 minutes of screen time. Why not just pry it open? The contents aren't the least bit interesting. You're supposed to be amused by the originality and inventiveness on display. Heaven help you if you're bored to death by it, because there's a lot more to come, including a lengthy series of espionage attempts that could cure the worst insomnia.

Whimsy for the sake of whimsy might be catnip to some, but “Micmacs” can be really tedious if it happens to be your kryptonite. That the movie lacks the right kind of actor to root for is a further complication. Boon might be a multitalented, big-name star in France, but he's misplaced and underused here, cast as a sort of contemporary silent-film persona intended to be an audience surrogate. His Bazil never becomes the identifiable protagonist the movie needs.

“Micmacs” is a work of intricate artistry, but that doesn't automatically make it good. Call it the opinion of a sourpuss, but the movie is proof that expertly filmed, boundless inspiration can be amazingly slow. (R) 104 min. *

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