20080528-film-0101.jpgIt’s a sad state of affairs when the best thing about a film is outtake footage of a chimp playing during the closing credits.

Speed Racer is a mess. A movie about car racing that’s more than two hours long, it features not one auto race that can be followed, understood or enjoyed. The Wachowski brothers, the brilliant team behind the first Matrix and its two sequels, tried to create something new and special with this one. What they wound up with is an expensive, catastrophic experiment.

The oddest thing about this film is that its best parts involve people just sitting around chatting. That’s probably because 1) the Wachowskis managed to assemble a fine cast, including Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci and John Goodman, and 2) the quiet moments give your eyes a rest from the CGI mess the directors try to pass as action.

The Wachowskis and their technical team employ a visual style that doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before, and that’s probably a good thing, because it’s acid on the eyes. It’s a strange hybrid of Tron, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and whiz-bang video games. The combination might sound good, but it’s not. Everything is bright and bubbly, with much of the film shot in front of green screens with backgrounds added later via computer wizardry. As films like Sky Captain have proven, when live actors are poorly integrated into a digital world, you get a movie with no soul. Speed Racer has no soul. Heck, even diehard racing fans won’t get it, because the film spends a relatively small amount of time on cars and the art of racing.

The plot involves some sort of nonsense about Speed Racer’s (Hirsch) family trying to avoid evil corporate sponsorship and remain a family racing organization. That’s right: It’s a family film about the evils of corporate sponsorship. You know these kids today; they’re all about video games, skateboarding and watching films about evil corporations trying to corrupt sweet family businesses!

As Speed Racer, Hirsch is his usual fine self, lending a certain high quality to the proceedings, even if those proceedings aren’t giving him anything back. Ricci has the look for Trixie, but she isn’t given much to do. Goodman does well enough as Speed’s protective dad, and Susan Sarandon is sweet as his mom. Matthew Fox is OK as Racer X, a mask-wearing mystery man who isn’t all that mysterious.

The film contains many races, some of them on a racetrack, and some of them cross-country. None of them contain anything resembling tension, because the Wachowskis stage things in a way that makes the racers indistinguishable. It’s just a bunch of pixels smashing you in the face, with occasional shots of actors inside car interiors looking determined.

The best thing I can say about the movie is that kids may love it. During the showing I attended, I heard a lot of youngsters squealing with delight, especially at the antics of Speed’s younger brother, Spritle (played by the interesting Paulie Litt), and Chim Chim the Chimp. Litt has a cool wise-guy delivery with his lines, like he came straight out of a Dead End Kids movie from the 1930s. His performance is easily the most amusing thing in the movie, besides the chimp.

Adding insult to injury, the film is too long, as there were at least three occasions where the ending felt imminent. If you’re sitting toward the rear of the theater, you’ll see everybody’s cellular-phone screens blinking on and off as they check the time — and the cell-phone light show is more interesting than the movie.

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