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Foreign cinema gets a bad rap in the United States because of its fans: aesthetes who brie their pants for movies about weeping at rain-streaked windows, movies that purport to deserve your $10 and two hours without indulging in so much as an exploding skyscraper or underwater knife-fight. If not for its constant exportation of full-frontal nudity, there'd scarcely be a point to even learning there's such a thing as Europe.
At least the continent is good for the occasional counterexample in a film such as "Micmacs," which not only blows up the odd manufacturing plant and discharges human cannonballs at whim, but reminds us, in its stylishness and effortless precision, that 80 years after they gained sound, movies are still an essentially visual medium. The movie's Frenchness in this regard only enhances the experience: A viewer could rightly enjoy this jaunt, and indeed gather its vital plot points, with the subtitles disengaged. In either case director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has crafted a story nearly as inventive as his 2001 masterwork "Amelie," imbuing it with a joie de vivre. By rights "Micmacs" ought to be the favorite foreign flick of your inner 10-year-old boy.
The film follows a hard-luck video store clerk named Bazil (Danny Boon) in the aftermath of a random shooting that has left a bullet precariously lodged in his brain. His life deteriorates until a motley band of scrap-yard vagabonds take him in and put him to work scavenging. On a junk run one day he finds himself at the munitions plant that built the bullet that nearly killed him; across the street, by some zoning fluke, is the weapons maker whose logo matches that on a landmine that snuffed his father when Bazil was a boy. What follows is a twist on the caper comedy, like a low-tech "Oceans 11," that pours the idiosyncratic talents of Bazil's friends (among them a master of mechanized puppets, a girl with a head for figures and measures, and a mesmerizing contortionist) into pitting the executives of the competing arms manufacturers against one another through subterfuge and sabotage.
For a movie so concerned with inspiring mutual assured destruction, the action in "Micmacs" is decidedly cartoonish, given mostly to pranks of scale. Fans of "Amelie" will recognize much of the cast here, as well as that titular character's penchant for clever mischief with a scoundrel as its target. The weapons makers, played with fiendish relish by Andre Dussollier and Nicolas Marie, are brilliantly sculpted villains, possessed of the sort of quirks – collecting body parts of the famous dead, drilling a child on the comparative strengths of nuclear weapons – that are at once hilarious and dastardly. Boon can't bring quite the same warmth to Bazil that Audrey Tatou poured into Amelie, but in his physical comedy, he conjures, at times, the panache of Buster Keaton. Bazil's gentle romance with the contortionist, rendered in impossible geometry by Julie Ferrier, brings needed heart to the tale. In gesture and expression, their emotions become all but tactile on screen. Language barriers are nothing when there's so much here to see.