Jean-Pierre Jeunet, something of an outsider in the French film world, has had a number of successes in his career, including Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children (both co-directed with Marc Caro), but nothing he has done has won the hearts of moviegoers around the world more than his smash hit Amélie.
Every once in a while, Jeunet tries to recapture the magic of that charming tale about a lonely young woman living in Montmartre, and that is obviously what he is up to in his latest film, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (L’Extravagant Voyage du Jeune et Prodigieux T.S. Spivet), based on The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet: A Novel, by Reif Larsen.
For this film made in English with mostly English-speaking actors, Jeunet went to Canada to film a story set in Montana. As in Amélie, everything in T.S. Spivet is slightly hyperreal, the colors too saturated, the landscapes too beautiful. It’s all too perfect – even the chaos of a little boy’s room looks artistically arranged, and a buffalo that happens to wander through one scene is perfectly groomed, unlike the mangy specimens I have seen. This is not the scary hyperrealism of a David Lynch film, however, with evil forces lurking underneath – it seems intended to hint that a better world is possible.
Readers who cannot stand the thought of another precocious child on film or TV should look away now. As the title implies, the subject of the film is a 10-year-old boy (awkwardly played by Kyle Catlett) who happens to be a scientific wonder stuck on a Montana ranch with his embarrassing family, all of whom live in their own fantasy worlds: a father (Callum Keith Rennie) who imagines himself a cowboy in the Old West; a mother (Helena Bonham-Carter) who is obsessed with studying insects to the exclusion of all else; an older sister (Niamh Wilson) who wants only to be a beauty queen; and a macho, gun-toting, not-too-bright twin brother (Jakob Davies).
When T.S. gets a phone call from the Smithsonian telling him he has won a prestigious scientific award for his prototype of a perpetual motion machine, he decides to go to the ceremony in Washington, D.C. He sneaks out early in the morning with an oversized suitcase and hops a freight train. As you can imagine, he has many adventures en route, and when he arrives, he is lionized by the media for his invention and exploited for his sad story (about the death of his brother).
One of the friends I saw T.S. Spivet with commented that it seemed like phoned-in Jeunet, without the magic or spontaneity of Amélie. I would agree and add that while trying to be quirky, it was actually packed with clichés and often verged on cutesiness. The last part of the film, featuring an overwrought Judy Davis playing a Smithsonian honcho who takes on the role of T.S.’s media handler, especially reminded me of too many TV shows I have seen, and I am not talking about the quality HBO-style series we have become accustomed to.