‘Microbe & Gasoline’
Director:
Michel Gondry
Stars: Ange Dargent, Theophile Baquet
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Microbe & Gasoline” is a Michel Gondry film like no other. You might think that means he’s cooked up another bizarre flight of fancy, something somehow busier than “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or the out-there likes of “Science of Sleep” or “Mood Indigo.” Not so. His latest is borderline neo-realist, at least for him. Typically his films are manic, using form and aesthetics to cram us inside oddballs’ heads. “Microbe & Gasoline” is, by contrast, simply a movie about oddballs, but shot in a typically French style: austere and hand-held.

Granted, it’s not too realistic. It is about two kids who build a makeshift car in the shape of a house. Daniel (Ange Dargent), called “Microbe” because of his short stature, is a sullen teen whose life is brightened by the new kid in school. He’s Theo (Theophile Baquet), aka “Gasoline,” because he rides around on a motorbike tricked out, in Gondry fashion, with red- and green-colored noisemakers. Their lives are miserable in a bored middle-class way, so they decide to escape, erecting a car that at first looks like one of those vehicles that drives around on rails at amusement parks.

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And so begins a platonic “Pierrot le fou” for kids, with our heroes cruising about the country, getting into wacky mischief, acting like believably un-woke boys. Gondry characters tend to disappear into fantasy or even their own minds, but this time he keeps things more or less grounded. Their ridiculous car indeed works (for a while), an iPhone manages to keep power despite spending several days buried in the woods, and the parents (including Audrey Tautou, as Microbe’s mom) only moderately worry about sons who don’t return their calls. Gondry worries about practicality for a change, though the prison of reality inspires him: Microbe and Gasoline try to get their car up to legal standards, and when they realize they’ll be pulled over by police anyway, they turn it into a tiny shack so it can pass as a house when parked.

Also like many Gondrys, the whimsy is tempered by a dark melancholy. Gasoline has a sick mom, and their adventures are but respites from the miseries that await them upon return. Like “Mood Indigo,” the fun curdles in its final stretch. Their exploits tend to be disappointments, and this will not have a happy ending, complete with a sudden, last-minute shift in perspective to a minor character who’s not doing well either. It’s a cold splash in the face — a reminder that Gondry is as brooding as he is silly, even when making an outlier like “Microbe & Gasoline.”

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