Each year American critics come to the south of France to inform their readers of new movies at the Cannes Festival, the showcase for refeened art films that keeps us in dark rooms while the sun is goldening this Riviera resort. We dutifully attend enervating screeds like today’s double feature in the Competition. I swear I sat through all two hours of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love, which traces the holiday of 50ish Austrian “sugar mamas” in search of sex with Kenyan “beach boys,” and climaxes with a long striptease and fairly explicit sex session involving a young African and the fat white women who have purchased his favors and dignity. The most hellish aspect of the Paradise ordeal: Seidel has announced it’s the first in a trilogy.
Friday’s other Competition film, Matteo Garrone’s Reality, offered some preliminary hope: the director’s previous feature was Gomorrah, an artful exposé of the Neapolitan crime syndicate. But the new film, about a Neapolitan fishmonger with ambitions of celebrity when he auditions for the Big Brother TV show, kicks the dead horse of the reality-TV culture, roasts it over a slow flame, adds no spices, then serves it up as revelation. Few of our colleagues back home appreciate this, but sometimes seeing films at Cannes is Hard Work. We frontline critics are like the nerds who stay after school to do math when the cool kids have gone off to party.
(SEE: Corliss’s choice for the all-time Top 10 Cannes Movies)
Because beyond the film festival there’s Cannes the 12-day party. In this all-star flesh market, Sacha Baron Cohen as the Dictator Aladeen can be seen in beard and bathing suit on a yacht just off the Croisette having suntan lotion applied by Elisabetta Canalis in a bikini. Bill Murray dances up a storm with his 13-year-old costars from Moonrise Kingdom. Alec Baldwin tries to talk Harvey Weinstein into appearing in a film Baldwin is shooting during the Festival with director Jimmy Toback. And you needn’t be famous to work strenuously at having fun. In the night club directly under our hotel room, some kids karaoked the other night till 4 a.m. I could swear their rendition of “Stand by Me” lasted longer than the Mahabharata. It was certainly louder.
Every now and then the august intellectuals who choose the official films allow an interloper: a movie with a pulse. This evening, out of Competition, Cannes will host the world premiere of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, the latest in the series of animated features about four domesticated beasts from Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo — Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) — who go on crazy adventures. The first two Madagascar movies have earned more than $1.1 billion at the worldwide box office, but that’s not why Cannes selected the new movie. The festival needs celebrities as much as it does Mensa masterpieces, and most of the stars from the DreamWorks production will be treading the red carpet tonight.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa)
Madagascar 3 had another salutary effect: it brought the crazy, ritzy fun of the party-hardy Cannes inside the huge Lumière Theatre. It’s not a film; it’s a freaky 3-D movie — the kind real people see and enjoy.
In Monte Carlo (the next big city down the Riviera from Cannes), Alex and his gang are corralled into an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist gone horribly wrong. Hoping to get back to Central Park, and on the run from the vindictive animal-wrangler Chantel duBois (Frances McDormand), the menagerie hides out with a traveling circus modeled on Cirque du Soleil — except that Cirque has no animals, and this one is only animals: the Siberian tiger Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), the sexy jaguar Gia (Jessica Chastain) and the cowardly sea lion Stefano (Martin Short). Also along for the thrill ride are veterans of Mad 2, including King Julien the lemur (Baron Cohen) and hordes of mischievous monkeys and penguins.
The directors of the first two films, Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath (joined here by Conrad Vernon), have learned that nothing succeeds like excess, so they don’t bother with down-time scenes that would let the audience catch its collective breath, and don’t worry that the typhoon of pop-culture references may elude some viewers. At first, the comic tone is archer than the McDonald’s logo; parts of Mad 3 are reminiscent of such strenuously zany mid-’60s farces as What’s New Pussycat, Help and the Casino Royale parody. Then it goes truly nuts and approaches the comic surrealism of Bob Clampett’s 1938 Warner Bros. cartoon masterpiece Porky in Wackyland. Only in 3-D, with fireworks and magical flying circuses. It’s a true Cirque de Berserk.
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And for those who suspect that Mad 3 would be similar in ambition to last year’s Pixar movie Cars 2 — a naked play for the European movie market, and a feature-length product placement for toys that continental parents can buy their kids — surprise! The script by Darnell and indie-acerbic auteur Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) takes pleasure in mocking the moviegoers it’s ostensibly courting, as when someone says of Europeans, “They only have to work two weeks a year” (and another replies, just to annoy our North American neighbors, “So, they have the Canadian work ethic”).
Mad 3 won’t ascend to the animation Hall of Fame; what King Julien says of himself — “I’m just an emotional whoopee cushion for you to sit on” — is true of this madcap sequel. But it’s the smartest film of Cannes’ three Friday entries in the Lumière, and, so far, the best movie of the Festival.
(LIST: Which animated film is No. 1 on Corliss’s 10 Greatest Movies of the Millennium?)