The next time someone puts you on the spot to define "irony"--and trust me, it can happen--tell them that irony is a movie called Speed Racer being one of the slowest rivers of sludge to ever dampen a movie screen.
Based on the 1960s Japanese cartoon and, more importantly, the poorly dubbed American import, Speed Racer is the first film that the Wachowski Brothers have both written and directed since 2003's The Matrix Revolutions, and it's proof positive that the creeping bloat of the final Matrix movies was not a fluke, but it's truly become their style. This particular racer takes over two hours to get to the finish, and if I was being generous, I'd say that was only half an hour more than was needed; if I were being honest, the starter pistol should have never been fired.
There is no point getting overly elaborate in my description of the story. The Racer family loves car racing. It's in their blood, which is a pretty lucky coincidence. It would suck to have a name like Racer and be plumbers or something. Middle child Speed (Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild) is itching to get on the track and make it big in the World Racing League, partly to satisfy his lust for cars and partly to reinvigorate the family name that was damaged by his crooked older brother, Rex (Scott Porter, Prom Night). Avoiding corporate sponsorship like his old man, Pops (John Goodman), taught him, Speed runs afoul of the evil Royalton (Roger Allam, V for Vendetta) and becomes embroiled in the long-standing corruption of WRL. After standing up, he is enlisted by the on-track bad guy Racer X (Lost's Matthew Fox) to bust the conspiracy, and ends up in two very different races where he will find out who he is as both a man and a car racer.
As anyone who has seen any of the advertising for Speed Racer knows, the above plot is not really the selling point of this movie. The Wachowskis have created a live action cartoon steeped in their nostalgia for the source material but stuffed with the hubris of modern technology. The world they have created is a marvel of Technicolor, green screens, and digital effects. It's a neon eye-gouge that is both impressive and overpowering, like Tron on magic mushrooms. Were they to have thrown caution to the wind and made the bright colors the sole reason for Speed Racer's existence, they might have been able to shape an alluring bauble out of this magnificent turd. Instead, they fell so in love with the style, they have insisted on padding it with endless exposition in order to carry on with it even longer. Seriously, the plot explanations go on forever. The first twenty minutes or so are spent cutting back and forth between Speed's present and his past to catch us up on the shame of Rex Racer. This story is relived yet again when Speed turns down Royalton. And then it, as well as every other important moment in the film, is shown one more time in the climactic racing scene. You know, just in case we didn't get it.
I knew that Speed Racer was maybe going to be bad, but I never had any expectation that it would be boring. Given that this is a racing movie, the pudding is really in the races, and these digital collages are completely lacking in excitement. There is no sense of purpose, and no actual illusion that any rubber is meeting the glowing road. Speed and the other drivers hurtle across twisting tracks, going upside down, avoiding various obstacles, jumping over one another with hydraulics, and generally knocking one another about in something more akin to Roller Derby than NASCAR. The video game backgrounds are neat, but one has no conception of the goal of the race. It's impossible to discern where the track begins or where it ends, and I have serious doubts that there was any actual track designed. This is where the style breaks down, overtaking any practicality and just becoming uncontrolled noise. What should have been the most exciting part of the movie sucks the energy right out of it. (And, honestly, nothing in the fluorescent, primary-colored art direction wasn't already done by Warren Beatty eighteen years ago in Dick Tracy.)
In fact, the style of the picture is so overwrought and vapid, it's hard to know where to even begin pulling it apart. Wipe cuts replace all other edits or fades, piling on detail after useless detail. The actors are all pushed to perform as if they were in the actual cartoon, mimicking the stiff animation and stilted speaking style, and almost all of them are buried under the conceit. Matthew Fox has nothing to do despite being on screen quite a lot, a fate that Susan Sarandon avoids as Speed's mom, since her having nothing to do means she really can do nothing. Emile Hirsch gives one of the worst performances I have ever seen, whispering his way through the entire film in order to make us think he is brooding and intense. Only Christina Ricci as the adorable, kick-ass Trixie and the chimpanzee who plays Chim Chim manage to have some fun with this crap, and even then the poor chimp has all of his scenes ruined by the truly obnoxious child actor Paulie Litt, playing Speed's little brother Spritle.
Look, I understand that Speed Racer is not meant to be a heavy sci-fi epic. I get that the Wachowskis wanted to make a light-hearted anime adventure. These things, however, should not be excuses for bad filmmaking. Iron Man came out last week and it proves you can make a fun movie that can have laughs and thrills without being dumb. (We could actually hear the heavy bass of Iron Man's explosions through the theatre walls. What a tease! A good movie so close, and yet so far....) Given the amount of preteen members of my audience, I also realize I may not be the ideal viewer for Speed Racer. They certainly found Spritle to be a hoot, and he and Chim Chim were about the only things that got them fired up in the lumpen first half of the movie. Once the racing finally started, the kids were whooping and hollering and having a good time. Then again, a "family film" means a film for the whole family, right? Not just the members of the family that are still in elementary school. If the Racer family went to the mall to see their own life story, Rex and Pops would be out like a light in nothing flat.
Five months into 2008 may be too soon to declare the worst movie of the year, but as it stands, Speed Racer is currently at the head of the pack in the contest to hit the bottom of the barrel. Do whatever you can to miss it.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.