Like some Gallic version of Tim Burton, Michel Gondry's initial promise has given way to a series of films whose diminishing returns demonstrate that he's a talented visualist without the capacity for, or worse, any interest in, telling an actual story. Gondry's defenders will, of course, point to the excellent "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," but the passage of years has made it abundantly clear that the credit for that film is entirely screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's; Gondry may have gotten out of the way of that script, but that's hardly a reason to celebrate his skills or capablities, such as they are, beyond that. The messy "Be Kind, Rewind," the cutesy-creepy "The Science of Sleep," the noisome and needless "Green Hornet" ... Gondry's name above a title has gone from being a reason to seek a film to being a reason to shun it.
"The We and the I," opening the Director's Fortnight in Cannes, was probably seen as a potential return to some past form; with great regret, I must state that it is not. Unspooling on a long cross-Bronx bus ride after the last day of school for the summer, Gondry (and co-screenwriters Jeffery Grimshaw and Paul Proch) put us on the bus with a cross-section of kids -- bullying bluff bros, social queen bees obsessing on an upcoming Sweet 16 party, the hapless and the helpless, and Theresa (Theresa L. Rivera), who's chosen today to come back from a 3-month absence, in a brassy bottle-blonde wig.
It may seem unkind to suggest that a French filmmaker on the cusp of his 50s is not the best choice to depict the social milieu of high school in the Bronx, but it's more unkind to suggest that you see the film for yourself to make up your own mind. With its overlapping dialogue and incredibly muddled sound mix, "The We and the I" soon turns into a claustrophobic endurance test, with only the occasional cell-phone video clip or fantasy sequence to get us off the bus. (The sound mix was so bad, in fact, I found myself ocasionally reading the French subtitles and reverse-translating to the limits of my minimal grasp of the language, because the English dialogue was entirely incomprehensible.)
And so the cast of non-actor actors regale each other with stories, or subject each other to humiliations, while a bus driver who wouldn't last for five minutes on a real bus line ignores transgressions like a kid smashing a guitar to splinters with his foot in the middle of the bus. Michael (Michael Brodie) is, at first, a ringleader of the unkindness directed at outsiders like Theresa and the nerdy Kendrick, but gradually, of course, comes around, culminating in a third-act revelation that attempts to add pathos to the banal in the most obvious and oblivious way possible.
There are a few touches of cloying whimsy to demonstrate Gondry's scrawled signature style, like a remote-controlled miniature bus/casette tape player with speakers that scoots through the NYC streets blasting "Bust a Move" -- a song released before most of the kids on the bus were born. Cinematographer Alex Diesenhof and editor Jeff Buchanan are both hamstrung by the film's setting, although some nice moments of New York life do come through the windows of the bus occasionally. Even the central idea in "The We and the I" -- that kids are different among their peers than they are when alone -- will only be a revelation to the viewer who has never been a kid. Muddled, muffled and mixing empty comedy with empty dramatics, "The We and the I" is an abject failure, and the Director's Fortnight crowd that laughed the hardest at the hijinks on the ride -- French people of, let us be blunt, a certain advanced age -- were most assuredly laughing at the inner-city kids Gondry brought to the screen, not laughing with them. [D]