As with Michael Bay, Ridley Scott, George Lucas, M. Night Shyamalan and Mel Gibson, bombast lies at the heart of the Wachowski brothers’ (The Matrix trilogy, V for Vendetta) style. Their latest, Speed Racer — a two-hour-plus movie that would feel long at 70 minutes — piles the usual excess upon excess. But decadence isn’t the same thing as having an artistic vision, especially when the décor is actually kind of tacky (the mise-en-scène looks like a parody of The Incredibles’ gorgeously rendered mid-century suburbia). Instead, Speed Racer is strong evidence that Susan Sontag was right, that what looks like camp is sometimes — “when it is too mediocre in ambition” — just bad art.
Busy as they are candy peddling (I mean this literally: look for the product placements), the Wachowskis do lend the cartoon source material what they surely believe is a subversive streak. The cross-dressing and porn star names (Christina Ricci as Trixie!) will go harmlessly over the children’s heads, but the Wachowskis’ hammy fascination with incestuous double entendres verges on disturbing in the context of a family film (stroking a steering wheel while explaining to his kid brother the finer points of racing, one driver says, “She’ll tell you what she wants, what she needs, all you gotta do is listen.”)
Speed Racer’s cast members — including Matthew Fox, John Goodman and Richard Roundtree — have to pay their rent too, so it’s to Susan Sarandon’s enduring credit that she makes every effort to be the only natural person in an otherwise synthetic universe. In a season when Iron Man has put some humanity — and some armor — back into the action picture, the Wachowski brothers have delivered their flimsiest, most plastic work yet.