The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime


With the sugar-smacked, thoroughly groovy Spy Kids, Robert Rodriguez proves he understands things about children’s entertainment that have been in short supply since Tex Avery retired: the need for speed, the lust for fantastic anarchy, the fascination with secret techno thingamabobs that perform unpredictable tasks. Conscientiously implausible, Spy Kids refuels prepubescent moviegoing, hitting kids on their own heathen level with an ishkabibble stew of HR Pufnstuf design and more espionage irreverence than Dr. Goldfoot could’ve mustered without a bra pun.

Any station break from Disney-osis and the autistic chaos of Pokémania is to be appreciated, but Rodriguez ricochets around with his own set of narrative and physical laws. The movie’s Rio Grande milieu is just the first self-indulgent gag, locating mega-digi-ware superspydom in, of all places, a Tex-Mex Austin. Retired spooks/federal “consultants” Gregorio and Ingrid (Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino) raise their two sprouts, Carmen and Juni (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara), with the parents’ past and profession kept covert. That is, until they are captured by Floop (Alan Cumming), a Peewee-ish evil genius whose passions are split between building an army of Herculean robot children and perfecting his cosmic-Kroftian television show. Boosted into the cartoon-Bond slipstream, the kids make their way to Floop’s Wonka castle by the sea, all the while hunting down walnut-sized synthetic brains and battling mini-villains (including clumsy robots made up entirely of five giant thumb-ends, all in snappy red-sweater short-suits).

Rodriguez’s movie is honed for maximum visual noise, cadging from everywhere but dissolving its references into a spurt of pure nonsense. Though clearly a kids’ consumer product, Spy Kids has an intemperate vitality that’s hard to resist. The grown-up world is conceived as a ridiculous minefield of jack-in-the-box mysteries. Floop’s universe alone is a freestanding metaphor for the adult-run entertainment complex, where reasonable men and women are routinely mutated into backward-speaking monstrosities.

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988), enjoying a digitally overhauled re-release, is no less juvenile and baffling, but its textures and tumult are a different story. With an appetite for destruction that buries any other film made in or out of Japan, Akira is some kind of fever-dream masterpiece, easily the most breathtaking and kinetic anime ever made and one of the most eloquent (if utterly hermetic) films about atomic afterclap. The plot amounts to little more than a descent into accelerating, reactive physical mayhem, caused by agovernment-project migraine packing the titanic toll of an H-bomb. Ignore the grating teenage-clique context and rock with the cataclysmic details Otomo has made regulation-issue for Japanimators: exploding slow-motion debris spikes, the scarifying tumble of decimated buildings, the whip of sudden ignitions. For rack and ruin, it’s the only show in town.

As the burden we must bear for hoping that a rampaging telekinetic surge would flatten producer Lynda Obst, Someone Like You is a particularly shallow dissection of single-woman blues. Poor TV staffer Jane Goodale (Ashley Judd) suffers not only a meaninglessly coy moniker but also men in all of their fickle swinishness. Suspended between faux-sensitive goldbricker Ray (Greg Kinnear) and womanizing wolf Eddie (Hugh Jackman), Jane eventually arrives at a let’s-remake-the-front-page “theory” about men’s “copulatory imperative” that she pseudonymously converts into a smash mag column. Obst empties her purse on the table—sassy girlfriends with dating strategies, song interludes, bubble baths with cuke slices, utterly sexless sex, even a broken heel on New Year’s Eve—which may or may not be found in Laura Zigman’s source novel but is all robbed from Nora Ephron anyway. Capped with a masochistic climax, the movie is trite like the ocean is big.