All the best moments of Racer And The Jailbird take place in the front seat of a speeding automobile. Most of the time, it’s the racer of the title, Bibi, behind the wheel. Bibi is young, beautiful, and affluent. She’s played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, who made her furiously emotive breakthrough in the sprawling, Cannes-winning coming-of-age romance Blue Is The Warmest Color, which really should have made her an international movie star. Those still waiting on another tempest of raw feeling from the twentysomething French actor will have to keep waiting. Racer, at least, taps into her magnetism: an underutilized fusion of glamour and ordinariness, holding the center of a film that feigns interest in character and story, when it’s really all about the superficial pleasures, like fast, shiny cars and the two strikingly attractive people riding in them, when they’re not—to paraphrase the movie itself—riding each other.
Bibi has fallen for Gigi, a friend of her brother’s, a half-Flemish stud who imports and exports cars in Brussels, but really just as a front for his real occupation: robbing from the rich and giving to himself as part of an ambitious criminal outfit, his own Merry Men. Though economically star-crossed—she’s slumming, he’s marrying up—the two lovers share an addiction to sensation, Gigi getting off on the thrill of the job as surely as Bibi does on the race. It helps, too, that he has the slightly brutish good looks of Matthias Schoenaerts, appearing for a third time in a crime drama by Belgian writer-director Michaël R. Roskam. Gigi is easily the slickest, least thuggish character Schoenaerts has played for the filmmaker (the least interesting, too, sadly), but like the emasculated goon of Roskam’s queasy-intense Bullhead, he nurses a childhood trauma: a bad memory that’s provoked a lifelong fear of dogs. Think that might come into play at some point before the crawl of the end credits?
Despite Bibi’s need for speed, Racer And The Jailbird sputters more than it guns. Unnecessarily divided into chapters, the film sprawls across the years, tracing a predictable crime-doesn’t-pay downfall. Roskam, whose last film was the similarly sluggish but more flavorful Dennis Lehane adaptation The Drop, sporadically indulges in some robust action-movie theatrics, including a daring highway heist whose single-take staging could serve as a fine audition for a Fast & Furious sequel, should the director ever feel like feeding himself into the grinding gears of a Hollywood franchise. Mostly, though, the driving force is the fraught, “tragic” relationship between Bibi and Gigi, neither sharply defined enough to earn our heartbreak or -ache. What one thinks of, perhaps, is Claude Lelouch’s handsomely shot and stylishly sentimental A Man And A Woman, a French-fluff “classic” that similarly splashed its amour fou against winding roads and the tight turns of a race track. That had a few moments of swoon-worthy automotive splendor, too. Blessedly, it didn’t run 130 minutes.