It’s vanishingly rare to know the exact moment at which a movie loses the sympathies of its viewer, yet Chicken With Plums, a sophomorically cruel look at the wasted life of an Iranian violinist, promptly and clearly loses its balance. It indulges its misanthropy during an imagined jaunt to the United States, a flash-forward showing a cute young boy growing up to become a revolutionary and ultimately flee to America. There, he lives in a boxy sitcom house with a moronic wife, two sons who practice hip-hop dance (the movie treats this as though they were practicing ritual murder) and a daughter so fat that she doesn’t know she’s nine months pregnant—she goes to the hospital with a stomachache after having eaten a pile of pizzas.
After their masterful treatment of the human capacity for wonder and sympathy in the animated film Persepolis, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi have returned, but you’ll wish they’d left well enough alone. Chicken With Plums travels back and forward in time from its central plot: a musician having decided to die—leaving his wife a widow and his children orphans—because his violin is broken. The future holds nothing but grimness, even though it’s completely incongruous. (Why would a scholar and revolutionary immediately adopt the most garish trappings of capitalism? Why do these talented directors think a Todd Solondz parody still has bite?) The past holds nothing but lame explications for the protagonist’s inexcusable behavior. And the bizarre thing? The filmmakers think their story is a whimsical stroll, not a journey to the heart of darkness.
The best fiction in any medium often features the sort of protagonist one cannot wholeheartedly support—the antihero—and seeks to understand his or her behavior. Chicken With Plums, though, seeks to excuse. It’s O.K. that he has completely abandoned his family, see, because he’s sad his violin is broken. And why is that violin broken? Well, because he called his wife, the family’s major breadwinner, “a shitty little teacher.” And he said that because he lost his first love, and married his wife out of sheer pique.