Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Director Report Card: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2013)

7. The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet

After the shrugging reaction that met “Micmacs,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet said he wanted to make an another adaptation next, for his next film to be in “someone else's world.” He found that other world in Reif Larsen's novel “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet.” Jeunet was one of several filmmakers Larsen contacted about possibly adapting his then-unpublished book. “The Young and Prodigious Spivet” would be Jeunet's first entirely English language film since “Alien: Resurrection.” It would be filmed in 3-D, seemingly primed for a wide U.S. release.  This wouldn't happen, the film quickly disappearing after completion. Even while actively courting the American market, it seems like Jean-Pierre Jeunet can't make another hit.

Who is T. S. Spivet? He is a ten year old boy living on a Montana ranch with his family. His father is a rough and tumble cowboy. His mother is an eccentric scientist. His sister wants to be Miss America. T.S., meanwhile, is a genius. After designing a perpetual motion machine, he submits the blueprint to the Smithsonian Institution. They give the design an award and, assuming T.S. to be an adult, invite him to accept the trophy. The young boy runs away from home, traveling across country, to accept the prize in person. All the while, a personal tragedy hangs over the young prodigy's head.

I want to preface my following thoughts by saying I enjoyed most of “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet.” However, this film was clearly designed to be Jean-Pierre Jeunet's commercial comeback. I mean, the author of the original book admitted he wrote the novel with the intentional of it being turned into a movie. Aside from being in English, its story of a precocious child going on an adventure has plenty of mass appeal. The film also heavily reminds one of “Amelie.” Both concern lonely outsiders, prone to elaborate flights of fancy, attempting to find their place in the world. Instead of being a dreamer, Spivet is a facts obsessed scientist. But the similarities stand.

In other words, “The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet” was an obvious attempt by the director to recreate his biggest hit. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as you enjoy Jean-Pierre Jeunet's particular strain of whimsical nonsense. “Spivet” shows the director happily luxuriating in his trademarks. Despite clearly being set in the modern day – cellphones are referenced at one point - “Spivet” still feels like its set in some sort of idealized past. A literary style narration plays over much of the film. The director's trademark golden coloration plays a big role, usually in the form of the swaying wheat fields surrounding the Spivet ranch. This is such a Jeunet movie that the quirky characters, Rube Goldberg set pieces, and random Dominique Pinon appearance almost go without saying.

The most delightful of Jeunet-isms present in “T. S. Spivet” is the elaborate fantasies the young, prodigious protagonist builds. The ghost of his younger brother, Layton, appears to him throughout the film, the two having conversations. Before leaving his home, Spivet has a short conversation with the family dog, who responds in turn. (The same dog, it must be noted, was earlier seen eating a metal pail.) Jeunet displays Spivet's hyper-logical brain by having formulas and equations appear on-screen. The film's magical/realistic tone is such that when Spivet appears with a giant apparatus on his head, spitting lightning, you assume its another fantasy. T.S.'s sister even gets in on the action. In a sequence startlingly similar to Pixar's “Inside Out,” we get a peak into her mind, as different aspects of her personality discuss what to do with her little brother.

“The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet” is the film debut of Kyle Catlett, who would go on to the “Poltergeist” remake and a few TV credits of note. Due to Catlett's new comer status, it's hard to judge his performance. Catlett's Spivet is overly mannered throughout the film. Catlett often delivers reams of highly technical dialogue, dictating scenes as they happen. This, however, fits the character. Catlett doesn't hit too many false notes, though he occasionally slightly fumbles an emotional scene. Time, I suppose, will see if he's a very good actor who knows how to read a character or a slightly stiff child actor.

Being a kid who thinks too much, Spivet has a complicated relationship with his parents. He sees his cowboy father as distant, believing Dad never wanted him and preferred his brother. His rationalist mother, meanwhile, can be equally difficult to approach. Callum Keith Rennie, a character actor better known for his television work, plays the dad as a traditional cowboy. He gets a few expressive moment – when tying a noose for a louse or shooting a deadly viper – but mostly plays it close to the chest. More interestingly is Helena Bohnam Carter as Spivet's mother. Carter excels when playing up her character's eccentric side, coughing up scientific facts about insects. She livens the part up with bits of sly humor, such as the way she answer Spivet's question about a school bully, or meaningful emotion, such as the scene where she attempts to reach out to the boy.

T. S.'s relationships with his siblings are equally fraught. His sister, played by the interestingly named Niamh Wilson, is a bubble-headed teenage girl. She's usually annoyed with her little brother and dreams of becoming Miss America, something her hyper-rationalist is baffled by. Yet Wilson's best moments show that she cares about her little brother. Such as how excited she is to see him on TV. Or, during another fantasy sequence, where she begs him to come home during an imagined phone call. As a younger brother, it strikes me as a realistic depiction of a sibling relationship.

I'm less certain of how the film handles Spivet's brother. It's bluntly reveal after about fifteen minutes in that Layton is dead, killed in a firearm accident. T.S. blames himself for the death, certain his parents hate him because of it. Which is partially why he imagines conversations with the brother. These scenes are “Spivet” at its most mawkish. The film really pushes things when the boy tearfully confesses the details of the accident to a crowd of people. While not quite poorly handled enough to classify as awkward, this subplot threatens to derail the film several times.

Furthering its novel-like structure, “The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet” is evenly broken into three acts, title breaks included. The middle section depicts the boy's travel across country and leads to some of my favorite scenes. Such as a brilliantly funny moment where T.S. hides inside an R.V. display model, posing between two cardboard cut-outs. Or the especially clever way the boy sneaks aboard a moving train. The biggest action scene even has the kid leaping across a bridge, swinging over a river. It's during these scenes that we meet Dominique Pinon as a tall tale telling railroad worker and, in a less successful moment, Julian Richings as a slightly creepy truck driver. These scenes are the film at its funniest, swiftest, and most entertaining.

After accepting his award from the Smithsonian, “The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet” reaches its logical end point. In its final twenty minutes, the film makes an unexpected transformation into a satire about celebrity culture. Spivet's touching acceptance speech, young age, and groundbreaking invention makes him an overnight phenomenon. The museum overseer, played by an exaggerated Judy Davis, becomes his agent. She callously parades the boy around for the press, until an unlikely reunion with his parents ends the film. These scenes have little to do with the rest of the movie. Their points about celebrity and exploitation do not connect much with the film's overriding ideas. It's a very odd, totally unnecessary story shift.

One way this film is very different from Jeunet's other movies is its musical score. Dropping the accordions and pianos of his European features, “Spivet” instead features a country and western soundtrack. Provided by Denis Sanacore, the score features plenty of strumming fiddles and plucked bass guitars. The result brings the Montana setting to mind immediately while also providing a sense of adventure to Spivet's quest across country. For the more introspective moments, a softer melody is employed, utilizing a methodical guitar. While not as instantly memorable as some of Jeunet's other scores, the music perfectly fits the movie.

If “The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet” represents Jean-Pierre Jeunet repeating himself, it could be a lot worst. The film is still very entertaining, quite funny throughout, and characterized by an overwhelming charm. While Jeunet is clearly restraining his wildest instincts, there's still plenty of himself present in the final product. As always, he brings some brilliant cinematography along with him. The script this several road bumps, preventing the ride from being totally smooth. I would put “Spivet” on about the same level as “Micmacs,” a slight work that nevertheless fits in with the director's style, is fun to watch, and deserved to reach a wider audience. [Grade: B]

Since "Spivet's" underwhelming release, Jean-Pierre Jeunet hasn't worked much. It's evident that his string of commercial nonstarters has damaged his career. His most recent credit is a TV pilot for a "Casanova" series. He's done a few commercial and was recently in the news for expressing disgust at the "Amelie" musical. Supposedly he's hard at work on a new script which will ditch his retro setting for something edgier. I would've prefer a return to his weirder, early sci-fi days but I think a change of scenery is going to be good for Jeunet. Whatever he does next, and whatever part he sticks Dominique Pinon in next, I'll probably check it out.

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