Turning the volume of his slapstick surreality down from 11 to 10, Gallic auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Amelie”) hits the sweet spot with “Micmacs.” The wacky tale of a brain-injured videostore clerk who brings down a pair of Parisian arms dealers with the help of some highly creative collectors of second-hand goods, “Micmacs” welds Jeunet’s hyperactive imagination to the simpler structures of silent comedy and ’40s-era studio capers, resulting in the director’s most accessible work yet. Following its surefire French release on Oct. 28, this Sony Classics pickup should translate well Stateside, given the paucity of its dialogue and the purity of its gags.
Jeunet, though working again with co-screenwriter Guillaume Laurant, has turned away from the obsession with capital-F Fate that informed “Amelie” and its follow-up, “A Very Long Engagement.” Here, the slender plot is set swiftly in motion by a stray bullet that lands in the head of clock-punching Parisian Bazil (Dany Boon) during his umpteenth screening of Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep.” Comatose in the hospital, Bazil doesn’t notice when his callous surgeons flip a coin, thereby determining that they’ll keep the slug lodged in the patient’s skull –this at the risk of his sudden death at any time.
An apparently new sensitivity to visual stimuli allows mild-mannered Bazil to recognize a weapons manufacturing company’s logo as identical to that in an old photo taken by his late soldier dad, who hit an explosive land mine years ago while fighting in the Sahara. Acting like his detective hero, Philip Marlowe, Bazil spies on the company’s two chiefs, including one Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet (Andre Dussollier), who absurdly collects the body parts of key historical figures and is currently angling to reel in Mussolini’s eye.
Meantime, sleeping along the Seine under a blanket of cardboard, Bazil falls in with a merry band of junkyard tinkerers, each with his or her own eccentric specialty: Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is an ex-con and expert lock-picker; Remington (Omar Sy) types on an old electric; Buster is an obsessive record-breaker (Dominique Pinon); Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup) does the math; and Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier) literally bends over backward for the crew.
In the spirit of these ingenious recyclers, Jeunet has charmingly repurposed the 65-year-old “Big Sleep” score along with snippets of other ’40s film music, all composed by the great Max Steiner. Just as delightful, if more unique, are the tools of infiltration — ropes, pulleys, bottomless suitcases, makeshift fishing poles, and other bric-a-brac — with which Jeunet and Laurant have outfitted the gang.
The movie’s zanier scenes are allowed to work so well in part because Jeunet has given them sufficient room to breathe; unlike the director’s more aggressively hyperactive work, “Micmacs” carefully apportions its visual jokes rather than bombarding the viewer with them.
In a production of enormous size and minute detail, tech credits are top-caliber, most notably the elaborately funky production design of Aline Bonetto. Though little more than props themselves at times, the actors in Jeunet’s fantasia perform capably — or, in the case of Ferrier’s memorably contorting Elastic Girl, limberly.