Delicatessen, Director and co-Writer Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1991 debut film remains his best, and co-Director Marc Caro had a hand in this homage to Terry Gilliam. Jeunet, who is 60, now directs alone and continues to co-write his scripts with an increasingly self-indulgent and tiresome end product.
But if you enjoyed the quirky, creepy Amélie, the misguided A Very Long Engagement and the tedious Micmacs, you will surely appreciate The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, Jeunet’s first English language film since Alien: Resurrection.
Based on the 2009 illustrated book by Reif Larsen about a 12-year-old cartographer prodigy from Montana who runs off to the Smithsonian Institute by himself, the film is reminiscent of Hugo and the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, without the historic context of the former and the novel, autistic point-of-view of the later.
Jeunet has, however, delivered a visual treat. His and Cinematographer Thomas Hardmeier’s use of colour and 3D photography enhance the breathtaking Canadian (dubbing for fracked and farmed Montana) scenery that might keep you captivated even if the film does not.
In the film, Kyle Catlett plays the eponymous child prodigy, but, due to Catlett’s tiny frame, the main character is now the 10-year-old inventor of a perpetual motion machine. His mother, Dr Clair (Helena Bonham Carter, acting goofy as usual) is a scientist more interested in her bug species collection than housework and mothering, while his father is a Montana cowboy belonging to another era.
In the film we hardly get to know his sister, Gracie (Niamh Wilson) who, with her Hollywood airs, adds to the dysfunctional family. A fifth member of the family is Layton (Jakob Davies), who appears like an imaginary friend, but is really T.S.’s brother, killed in a tragic accident. He remains in the background until the climactic scene at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
When T.S. receives a phone call announcing that his drawings of a perpetual motion machine have won the Smithsonian Museum’s prestigious Baird award, he pretends that his indisposed father is the inventor to avoid disqualification.
Then T.S. runs away from home to collect his award. When this puny 10-year-old shows up to claim his prize, the adults panic. But the Smithsonian’s media savvy, power-hungry undersecretary, Miss Jibsen (Judy Davis), seizes the marketing potential and takes the overwhelmed T.S. under her wing.
The journey cross country is strangely uneventful and several people in the audience were nodding off as it progressed. Everything in the film seems to be leading to T.S.’s big climactic speech to the crowd of PhDs but when it finally arrives, the speech fails to dazzle with the speaker’s brilliance.
Clearly, the muted confession at the end is sobering, but remains so distant that we cannot summon up the requisite emotion. The subsequent T.V. appearance is even more of a let down and fails to amuse as a satire.
Judy Davis steals the show as the undersecretary institutionalised to the point of parody, but there isn’t much of a show to steal. Bonham Carter seems to be going through the motions of the character she does so well. Everyone, including Catlett, needs a hit from the perpetual motion machine, if only for 105 minutes.
Joyce Glasser – MT film reviewer