The last time Jean-Pierre Jeunet made a film in English, it didn't work out so well. Hot off cult hits "Delicatessen" and "The City Of Lost Children" (co-directed with Marc Caro), Jeunet was picked by 20th Century Fox to helm "Alien: Resurrection," the fourth film in one of the most important franchises. The result was the worst entry in the series, one admittedly hampered by studio interference, but also one that seemed to prove a uniquely poor match to Jeunet's particular skill set.
The Gallic helmer bounced back, next going on to make the most beloved film of his career with "Amelie," but it's taken him seventeen years to return to the U.S. for another English-language picture, and this time, it's much more on his terms: an adaptation of Reif Larsen's acclaimed "The Selected Works Of T.S. Spivet," variably retitled "The Young And Prodigious Spivet," or in the U.K., where it opens this week, just plain old "T.S. Spivet." The results, however, are not all that much more satisfying than the last time that Jeunet went Stateside.
The film focuses on the quirky title character (Kyle Catlett), who lives in Montana with his quirky family: a quirky father (Callum Keith Rennie) who's a strong-and-silent cowboy type, a quirky mother (Helena Bonham Carter) who has a professional obsession with insects, and a quirky beauty-pageant-aspiring older sister (Niamh Wilson). Quirky quirky quirky. The four of them also live with a giant elephant in the room: T.S.' younger brother Layton (Jakov Davies) died in a gun accident some time back, and the family are still in shell shock as a result.
T.S. is a scientific prodigy, and has secretly entered what he claims to be a perpetual motion machine into a competition. But even he is surprised to learn that he's won the prestigious Baird prize, and is invited to a ceremony in Washington D.C. Not wanting to cause a fuss, the young boy sets out alone to make his way to the nation's capital, a remarkable journey for such a small boy.
It's the closest thing in Jeunet's career to a full on kids' picture, right down to being shot in 3D, as all family films are these days. And it's the photography (which won the cineamtography award at the Cesars, the French equivalent to the Oscars) that's the most notable aspect of the film: Jeunet's very particular style is perfectly suited to stereo visuals, and he makes better use of it than most, striking the right balance of gimmicky and immersive.
It's a shame about the film around it, then. Again, the intention seems to be for the film to be a broad family picture, but it takes odd tonal lurches, from the somewhat grim backstory, which is undermined by the lighter comedy, to a finale that ends up feeling like a sort of sour satire, complete with some salty language, and that falls completely flat. It's also an odd mish-mash of styles: Jeunet has populated the film with his usual array of colorful faces, many of whom are European rather than American (regular Dominique Pinon being the most recognizable), but it means that the film never reaches the level of Americana it seems to be aiming for: it's pastiche, rather than celebration.
As with most of Jeunet's post-"Amelie" work, it's episodic in narrative terms, but like previous picture "MicMacs," it doesn't really add up to a satisfying whole, and even at 105 minutes, ends up dragging. But more than anything else, it's the oppressive preciousness of the whole endeavor that sinks it.
Everyone has their own tolerance for quirk and magic realism, and certainly Jeunet has spent his whole career pushing that, but we’d argue that the bulk of his work has been genuinely captivating and charming while still managing to have an emotional undercurrent. But even the most whimsical of film fans will have their patience tested here. “T.S. Spivet” is more twee than the Pinterest board for a Portland wedding. It’s more twee than Michel Gondry’s Tumblr. It’s more twee than Wes Anderson and Zoe Kazan dancing to a C86 mixtape. What we’re saying is, if “Amelie” got on your nerves, this might give you a full-on aneurysm.
There are some sweet performances (Catlett is charming, and it’s always nice to see Bonham Carter play away from grotesque: their scenes together come closest to actually managing to find some truth and emotion amid the whimsy), and Jeunet occasionally reminds you why he was once considered one of the most exciting names in world cinema. But for the most part, it’s another visually interesting, somewhat hollow misfire from a director that we’re rapidly losing faith in. [C-]
"T.S. Spivet" opens in the U.K. today, Friday June 13th. The Weinstein Company will release it in the U.S. later in the year.