“Who’s zoomin’ who?” asked Aretha Franklin in her 1985 hit of the same name — and while the song doesn’t feature amid the film’s cooler musical selections, it summarizes the key dramatic question of “Zoom.” A spirited if spotty solo debut for Brazilian helmer Pedro Morelli, this breathless trifle triangulates the personal and creative crises of an insecure comic-book artist, a cocksure filmmaker and an aspiring novelist — with the considerable high-concept twist that each of the three is living a narrative created by one of the others. Morelli and tyro scribe Matt Hansen unpack this Charlie Kaufman-lite premise with more cleverness than wit, struggling particularly to find the right racy tone for various erotic interludes — but the part-toon pic’s neatly collapsing structure and pop-art flourishes ensure it’s never dull. The (literally) animated presence of Gael Garcia Bernal adds a sales hook, but “Zoom” will do its zippiest biz in VOD.
A Canadian-Brazilian co-production boasting Fernando Meirelles among its executive producers, “Zoom” isn’t without what could be termed “Ameripudding” inconsistencies. The tetchy indie comedy it begins as, starring Canuck actress Alison Pill as a frustrated doodler working in a sex-doll factory, feels at least a continent removed from the loose, Bernal-starring showbiz satire of later sections, rendered in candy-colored, Lichstenstein-esque rotoscope animation. One might even say its three pinballing stories seem lifted from different movies entirely, but that’s precisely the point: Within the film’s universe, each one is directed (and redirected, on the hoof) by a different teller, their respective characters befuddled by incongruous developments wrought by an invisible hand.
This metafictional conceit is hardly new — 2006’s Zach Helm-written comedy “Stranger Than Fiction” is a useful point of reference here — though Hansen’s script reps an especially dense riff on the idea, locking its three shifting scenarios in an infinite domino loop of influence. All of which is to make Morelli’s film (which follows 2013’s “Entre Nos,” co-directed with his father Paulo) sound like a more intellectual exercise than it has any intention of being. When “Zoom” does work, it’s as an elaborate goof, juggling its elements simply because it has the springy ability to do so, not because it has anything of great substance to say about the storytelling process. Nor, for that matter, about the currently topical issue of modern-day body-image politics, which drive the proceedings to a significant degree but are addressed in fairly glib fashion.
Indeed, it all begins — though “beginning” is a nebulous concept in this cyclically structured tale — with a boob job. Geek-chic cute but bothered by her relatively flat chest, moonlighting cartoonist Emma (Pill) yearns for the bombe-like breasts of the synthetic sex dolls that surround her at her place of work; after undergoing drastic enhancement surgery, however, she finds herself equally self-conscious for the opposite reason. Given little reassurance by her schlubby, tactless b.f. Bob (Tyler Labine), she has wishfully put pen to paper and drawn up her ideal man in Edward (Bernal), a high-flying and extremely well-hung dreamboat director shooting his latest project in Rio de Janeiro.
In light of her bodily dissatisfaction, she decides to take Edward down a notch, summarily reducing his prodigious member to a mere stump with a flourish of ink. In Edward’s previously perfect world, his exasperation over this inexplicable physical change has its own negative impact on his work, as he gradually loses creative authority on his new film: an angsty arthouse drama, revolving around romantically conflicted model-turned-writer Michelle (Mariana Ximenes), that dismays a brash studio chief (Jennifer Irwin) hoping for more helicopters and explosions.
This film-within-a-film (or, to be more precise, film-within-a-comic-within-a-film) serves as the third cog in the machine, with Emma the unwitting protagonist of Michelle’s novel-in-progress, though it’s under-imagined in relation to the other two. That reduces the potentially dizzy impact of the film’s latter half, as the characters catch wise to the increasingly tangled strings controlling them. Relative to Ari Folman’s comparable “The Congress,” another semi-animated Hollywood takedown traversing multiple dimensions, the themes of personal identity and autonomy here aren’t all that complicated. “Zoom’s” rabbit-hole rush is diverting enough, but arguably stops just as things are about to get really interesting.
Ensemble players mostly submit to the ride without making assertive individual impressions: Pill best matches the deadpan silliness required by the writing, while Bernal — even in cartoon form — could stand to limber up a little. Adams Carvalho and George Schall’s sleek, hot-hued animation design notwithstanding, the pic isn’t quite the uninhibited technical exercise that might have been expected, though d.p. Adrian Teijido appropriately differentiates the film’s remaining two story realms as light-starved and absurdly sun-kissed, respectively. Canadian electro artist Kid Koala’s score is less discerning, but fizzes along regardless.