Young boys are the only suitable audience for Speed Racer, the elaborate live-action adaptation written and directed by Matrix creators Larry and Andy Wachowski. And even they might feel an urge to squirm between the videogame-style, whizbang, jellybean-colored, CG-jiggered car races that are the adrenalized heart of this entertainment with no soul. For almost everyone else, the movie will be a bit of a drag. And in this context, ”everyone else” is a population including but not limited to grown men who love Japanese manga, baby boomers who remember watching the rudimen¬tary, junky cartoons as kids when there was nothing better on, grown women willing to sit through the noise with their own kids because at least the story promotes family loyalty and cooperation, and kid sisters dragged along with their brothers with an assurance that the epony¬mous hero chastely dates a girl who’s an ace behind the wheel herself.
As a refresher for the majority who won’t re¬member the forgettable cartoons, Speed (Emile Hirsch) is the second son of the car-crazy Racer family. He’s got a gruff, automobile-building Pops (John Goodman) with a mustache like a broom; a perky Mom (Susan Sarandon) who looks dewy even when she’s lending a hand with a wrench; a wiseacre kid brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt), who maintains a retro, J. Fred Muggs-era relationship with his pet chimp; a sassy girl¬friend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), who can drive fast and bat her eyelashes at the same time; and a mentor in the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), who sometimes competes with Speed on the track but is always there to encourage him to do the right thing. What really drives Speed, though, is his desire to live up to the memory of his legendary older brother, a champ who died racing. Speed tries to break records to the ac¬companiment of the Wachowskis’ manic, expen¬sive displays of whooshy technical showman¬ship, but the car guy’s drive to succeed doesn’t feel urgent, merely a necessity to make the gears of the movie turn. Clearly the thrill of translat¬ing the sensation of velocity into a pop visual vocabulary is what really turns the brothers on. For greed-in-our-time relevance, they’ve brought in an evil business-world fat cat (Roger Allam) with teeth like a busted grill, who offers to sponsor Speed’s quest for greatness, provided he throws races to suit the tycoon’s corporate schemes. But the Wachowskis’ hearts aren’t in the human stuff. The story, with its stilted refer¬ences to ”power and the unassailable might of money,” is as stiff as the old cartoons.
Speed was born to shift gears. A charming flashback to his grade-school days establishes the younger Speed as a mediocre student and a fidgety candidate for ADD therapy, at peace only when making vroom-vroom noises and drawing flip-page animations of moving vehicles. (I knew these boys in school, how about you?) But now he’s got to spend his days listening to Racer X’s cereal-box Zen teachings: ”Stop steering and start driving. The car is alive. Close your eyes and listen. You do it because you’re driven. Racing is what you do.” Regular driver’s-ed courses do not generally advise the lowered-eyelid approach to road safety, but Speed isn’t about to be tested on parallel-parking skills.
When the Speed Racer TV theme song was adapted from the Japanese rendition, the lyrics turned into dunderheaded stuff like ”He’s a demon on wheels/He’s a demon and he’s gonna be chasin’ after someone.” This newest iteration is about a demon on wheels who’s chasin’ after someone for 135 minutes — which makes for an awful lot of wheel spinning. But the young man is not so much a demon as a cipher arbitrarily assigned a succession of hero’s challenges, among them making the right moral choices, establishing an adult relationship with Pops, and letting Trixie move their relationship forward, at least as far as a decent kiss. Without a ravaged stare to focus his performance as it did in Into the Wild, Hirsch recedes even as his character hurtles forward. He’s a blank of a hero, outdramatized in every scene by an imposing Goodman, a Sarandon who harks back to her Rocky Horror beginnings, a goggling Ricci, and a luxuriously rotten-styled Allam.
In a display of relativity Einstein might have admired, Speed Racer appears to slow down even as the hero himself achieves record-breaking velocity. Forget what happens on the racetrack. This is one vehicle that stalls. C