By STEVE PERSALL
Speed Racer is a hallucination with less meaning than usual, all perpetual motion and confectionery hues, with style to burn and a substance needle buried on "E."
The Wachowski brothers of The Matrix fame — and its sequels' infamy — turn cinema into spinner art, squirting computer-generated paint on a whirling canvas to see what images result. Some pictures are pretty; others get pretty irritating the third or fourth time around.
The demographic target for Speed Racer is also a blur. Born of Japanese anime 40 years old, the brand appeals to viewers too old to be called fanboys anymore. The Wachowskis hedge their box office bets by making Speed Racer a kiddie flick, often focusing upon a chubby preteen and his impish chimpanzee.
Yet few children care about complex corporate shenanigans forming the story's core, nor should any see and hear torture and profanity in a PG movie. Then there's the 136-minute running time challenging any age's attention span.
Speed Racer begins with the backstory of its title character, a hyperactive lad whose family forms the best racing team in the world. Young Speed (Nicholas Elia) worships his older brother, Rex (Scott Porter), whose tricked-out Mach 5 is a record-setting beast. Later, Rex runs afoul of corporate schemers painting him as a dirty driver, bringing shame upon the Racer clan.
The entire first reel is composed of everyone's flashbacks to Rex's good and bad times, with actors superimposed on a whizzing cyclorama. In fact, anytime someone has anything important to say, such kinetic tricks seem a trick to mask the dialogue's inanity.
Flash forward a few years and Speed (now played by Emile Hirsch) is anxious to restore his family's reputation. His winning effort in a race draws the attention of Royalton Racing and its crooked namesake (Roger Allam). Royalton tempts the Racer team with gifts and a tour of his Willy Wonka-ish automotive factory, aiming to corrupt this gifted new track star.
That's the extent of the drama, although the Wachowskis pad the premise with another band of corrupt drivers and two, count 'em, two Enormously Important Races. Just because one is set in dusty terrain rather than a neon arena doesn't make the gravity-defying CGI stunts any different. If you've seen one midair pas de deux with battling autos, you've seen them all.
Acting is inconsequential in such techno-hypnotic surroundings. Hirsch showed in Into the Wild what his instincts can accomplish; Speed Racer shows what his agent suggests. John Goodman and Susan Sarandon have one doting gear as Speed's parents, while Christina Ricci as his girlfriend Trixie simply sells out.
No question that Speed Racer is unlike anything you've ever seen. So were Tron and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, and nobody counts them among escapist favorites. Faulty and frantic, Speed Racer's enduring claim to fame may be urging motion sickness medication next to popcorn at the concession stand.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.