I never really understood auto racing.
Other sports just make more sense. It's easy to grasp how someone can really enjoy watching baseball, football, or basketball. I'm not a sports fan at all but I'll certainly accept an invitation to a ball game or a Super Bowl party. It's not that hard to get emotionally invested in one team going up against the other and the drama of the match.
But cars driving around real fast in a circle for hours and hours? It's just not as accessible a competition as other games.
So with 500 fever in the air this month I did what one should also do when something seems nonsensical: ask questions of people that do seem to understand it. So I talked to my co-worker Matt Foster who's been a racing enthusiast all his life. His answer immediately clarified the whole sport: I just imagine myself in one of the cars.
It's with that insight in mind that one can easily diagnose the tremendous failure of the new sci-fi/family/action movie "Speed Racer."
The film is an adaptation of the cult cartoon show of the same name. It's set in the near future world of high tech car racing and features the Racer family, an independent racing team struggling in a world dominated by powerful corporate teams and sponsors. The hope for the family lies in young Speed Racer (Emile Hirsh,) who grew up idolizing his brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter.) Rex's fate is surrounded in much predictable mystery as his questionable death haunts Speed, the family, and the racing world.
Just as Speed begins to make a name for himself he and his family are wooed by the corrupt Royalton (Roger Allam,) the corrupt CEO of Royalton Industries. Royalton flatters Speed and the family and impresses them with the luxury of the corporate headquarters and the treatment its team of racers receives.
Racing is described as religion for the Racer family with the big players - more concerned with money and power than the glory of the sport - filling the role of the Devil. Speed is tempted but turns down the offer. Royalton's seduction then turns to intimidation. Speed is even more convinced of his decision. Life then gets difficult for the Racer family as Royalton uses his power to tarnish the family's name and bury them under questionable lawsuits.
And that's about all I can say about the plot because it's about then that I decided to leave - somewhere around the one hour mark. (I wasn't about to suffer through another hour and 15 minutes.) Yes, "Speed Racer" was a walk-out and thus an instant F. There wasn't much need to stay any longer. I knew exactly what was going to happen. Speed and family were going to fight against the big, corrupt businessman and reclaim racing for those who love it as a sport instead of an avenue to make money. Oh, and I wonder who Speed's brother Rex really was? I wonder what happened to him? I bet I can guess and I've never even watched an episode of the cartoon.
"Speed Racer" is loaded with wild colors and wall-to-wall special effects but it's all an incredible waste of time, money, and effort. The racing isn't exciting; it's boring. And the reason is simple: we have absolutely no emotional connection to the driver. Speed is an empty character. His family and girlfriend are shell clichés portrayed by brilliant actors - Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, and Christina Ricci - whose talents are wasted. Come on, if you can hire Bobby Flay as your chef you don't have him make you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Great actors need to have something with which to work.
So since the characters are boring - pretty much nonexistent - nothing really matters. I can't really care about anything. All that's up on the screen is pretty colors.
It's almost as though the cars in the movie are driven by robots. If no one is driving the car then the race doesn't really matter. I'll have to ask Matt what he would think of an Indy car race if none of the cars were driven by real people.
When I told another co-worker that I'd walked out of the movie his response was "So you didn't know it was going to be a kids' movie?" The problem is not that "Speed Racer" is a family film. It could have been a fantastic family film. It certainly had the potential. There's nothing wrong with a great kids' movie. "Horton Hears a Who!" and especially "The Spiderwick Chronicles" were two of the best movies to come out this year.
Perhaps the problem with "Speed Racer" is the way it was made. Part of the motivation behind "Speed Racer" was that the Wachowski Brothers, the creators of "The Matrix" trilogy and "V for Vendetta," wanted to expand their repertoire beyond the intelligent R-rated, sci-fi action movie. They set out to make a kids' movie. You can't do that. You can't just say "OK, let's make a PG-rated family action movie." You'll probably fail. Filmmakers should not set out to make a "kids' movie." They should just set out to make a movie. Try and make a film that kids will like and ultimately what'll happen is you won't respect them.
The Wachowskis are ridiculously talented and hopefully they'll learn from their mistakes with "Speed Racer" and we can count it as a misfire.