After two hours, Speed Racer wipes out

by Glen Baity

Because I want you to know where I’m coming from, I’ll state up front that I never liked the “Speed Racer” cartoon on television. They were still showing the 1960s staple when I was growing up in the ’80s, and I thought it was cheesy and stupid when I was 7. My opinion hasn’t really changed.

Before you get offended, realize that I turned my nose up at the Japanese export in favor the gritty realism of “GI Joe,” “Transformers” and “He-Man.” We all have our tastes, and “Speed Racer” just wasn’t mine. So its movie version, for me, amounts to a trip down someone else’s memory lane. And like hearing about someone else’s dream, or someone else’s kid’s educational accomplishments, it’s not nearly as exciting as the teller thinks it is.

That’s true even if the tellers are the Wachowski Brothers, who are back behind the camera for the first time since ending the Matrix trilogy – some would say poorly – in 2003. It’s obvious Andy and Larry have a lot of love for Speed and his family, but unless the viewer comes in with that same enthusiasm, it’ll be hard to justify the time commitment.

And by all means, let’s talk about that first: Larry and Andy Wachowski never give interviews, which is unfortunate, since nobody can ask them what the hell they were thinking when they decided a film based on “Speed Racer” needed to be 135 minutes long. The cartoon is a lot of things. A sprawling epic it’s not, and for a movie about going fast, this one sure does plod along.

The needlessly complicated plot centers, naturally, around Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), son of a hardcore racing family, who is haunted by the death of his older brother and idol, Rex Racer (Scott Foster). At the peak of Speed’s promising career, he rebuffs a sponsorship offer from Royalton Motors, bringing down the wrath of the company’s silver-tongued CEO (Roger Allam), who promises to end the young troublemaker’s days behind the wheel.

There are multiple pit stops along the way, but inevitably the film heads toward a Big Race which will either solidify the legend of Speed Racer or bring about his ruin and his family’s shame. On the way there, he is aided by his parents (Susan Sarandon and John Goodman), his girlfriend (Christina Ricci) and mysteriously-named mystery man Racer X (Matthew Fox).

Kudos to everyone involved for pulling this off with straight faces, and it’s obvious that the film benefits in no small way from the pedigree of its cast. Goodman and Sarandon, ever the professionals, give their best to their flimsy roles, and Hirsch has clearly become a young actor to watch, getting incrementally better with each film. Like everyone else here, he doesn’t have much material to work with, but he invests himself fully into what there is. The only really bad character is precocious preteen Spritle (Paulie Litt). Not to pick on the kid, but Speed Racer could’ve lost at least a few minutes by cutting out all of the cringe-inducing slapstick bits Litt shares with Chim Chim the monkey.

I’d be remiss not to mention the look of the film, which to its credit is both unique and evocative of the source material. Shot mostly against a green-screen (think Sin City with a retina-burning color palette), the film, technically, is probably more cartoon than live-action. The screen glows like electric Kool-Aid throughout, and like the Wachowskis’ debut, the viewer certainly gets a sense of seeing something new. The race scenes are wild, bending the laws of logic and physics with evident glee. These are pure spectacle, though, and any suspense derived from them is incidental at best. Still, everything onscreen pops, and at its best, Speed Racer is a true feast for the eyes.

This ceases to be pleasant around the end of the first hour. Throughout the film, every inch of the screen jockeys relentlessly for your attention, and it can be downright exhausting over the long haul. At one point during hour two, I found myself ignoring the characters onscreen in favor of a particularly loud lampshade. I know I lost track of at least one or two earlier plot points in a similar manner. Watching Speed Racer is not unlike listening to a band in which every member plays lead guitar – you try to hear everyone, you end up hearing no one.

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