Complaining that the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer is too noisy, too busy, too colorful and too over-the-top is a lot like visiting the Grand Canyon and complaining that it’s too big, or tackling a Wagner opera and kvetching that it’s too long and too bombastic. In other words, what did you expect? The Wachowski’s aren’t exactly known for their subtlety, so it oughtn’t be a big shock to find out that their film version of a frankly lousy cartoon isn’t Ingmar Bergman.
It’s not a good movie. But I would call it a fascinating failure—and add that it’s at least 30 minutes too long for its own good. The running time listed is either 129 or 135 minutes, depending on the source. I didn’t time it, and was fairly quickly driven from the theater by the remonkeyed hip-hop-techno-rave-J-rock-dance-remix version of the cartoon’s theme song over the end credits. And there are parts of the movie that I actively hated. (My tolerance for precocious kids with “cute” feces-flinging-chimpanzee sidekicks is sadly limited. Doubtless, this is a personal flaw I should work on correcting.) But all in all, I can’t quite climb on the anti-Speed Racer bandwagon, because the film is just too interesting to simply dismiss.
For my money, the Wachowski’s peaked with their debut film, Bound (1996). It has all the flash and zip of their subsequent work, but it also has a clever story and the chemistry of Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon going for it. And it strictly tries to impress the viewer with its cleverness. It isn’t peddling a load of clams pretending to be profound, which is exactly what happens with The Matrix (1999) and its wafer-thin philosophy. That it was a load of clams was ably demonstrated when the Wachowski’s tried to expand and explain with the two Matrix sequel films, the obvious shallowness of which earned them the kind of enmity one usually encounters when people feel they’ve been personally betrayed or made a fool of.
Despite having a family-loyalty underpinning with all the attendant good intentions that implies (kids’ movies without this are the rare ones) and an anti-big-business mind-set, Speed Racer doesn’t even pretend to have any depth. It barely pretends to have a story of any note, even though it actually has several intersecting story lines. It’s pure style—relentless, overpowering style. That it’s ultimately also overkill is an admittedly pretty big downside, but I’m not at all certain that sensory overload isn’t the point. It’s certainly what you get, and in more ways than just the fact that very little of what you see besides the actors is real.
The story lines are a convoluted excuse for wallowing in the film’s hallucinatory Day-Glo stylistic excesses and structural aberrations. All it really comes down to is the story of a kid named Speed Racer (Nicholas Eliah, War) who thinks about nothing other than racing cars (with that name, why is anyone surprised?) and idolizing his race-car-driving brother, Rex (Scott Porter, Prom Night). Speed grows up and becomes the racer of his dreams (and turns into Emile Hirsch in the bargain). Rex is supposedly killed in a race—thanks to the forces of evil big business—and Speed has a chance to pay them back etc., etc. Further convolutions about business dealings hardly matter, and there are aspects of the film I’d just as soon not explore too deeply—like why Speed’s girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), bears a striking resemblance to Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon). (Hello, Oedipus!)
Apart from the constant stylization, the film’s structure is unusual to say the least. Past and present collide so often that the movie threatens to become nonlinear. Memories appear in the middle of present-tense action—usually just floating in on the endlessly shifting backgrounds. If you thought the unstable and vertiginous backgrounds in Marc Forster’s Stay (2005) were disorienting, these go way beyond that. Conversations play with talking heads changing positions as the camera glides across the screen. Nothing in the film has any normal sense of stability—a feeling that actually grows over the course of its length—until the final race, the conclusion of which is a completely abstract burst of colors and motion. At that moment, the Wachowski’s stand revealed—for better or worse—as having made something like a $100 million experimental movie.
The big question is will you care about any of this, or will it all just give you a headache? I think the former is unlikely and the latter quite possible—unless you’re an 8-year-old boy. In that case, based on the exit chatter I heard, you may well sum it all up with, “That was awesome!” If you’re any older, however, I’d only recommend it as a possibly traumatizing excursion into hallucinatory visuals. What I personally find a little alarming is that the film exists in my memory as an animated movie, despite its all-human (and chimp) cast. Have I suffered permanent damage? Rated PG for sequences of action, some violence, language and brief smoking.