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Review: Live-action/animated hybrid ‘Zoom’ is a playful narrative turducken

Alison Pill in the movie "Zoom."
(Screen Media Films)

In one of the three stories that make up the cheeky narrative infinity loop that is “Zoom,” a creatively stymied film director gets schooled by his more commercially savvy producer on how to get by in Hollywood. “You’re shooting stuff,” he says. (He actually puts it differently, but this is a family newspaper.) “You shoot the stuff. You send the stuff to the studio. They eat the stuff, and everybody’s happy.”

Whatever else you might say about it, “Zoom” boldly and decisively refutes this conformist logic. No one who sees this wobbly but amusing hybrid of live-action and rotoscope animation — an appreciably out-there debut feature from the Brazilian director Pedro Morelli — will accuse it of being business as usual.

Anyone who has ever been transfixed by M.C. Escher’s artwork “Drawing Hands” may find themselves similarly diverted by the premise at the heart of Matt Hansen’s playfully knotty screenplay, which juxtaposes three stories that could scarcely be more different in tone and style, then pulls back to reveal that each story has been cleverly embedded in one of the others. Picture a turducken in which the chicken is inside the duck, which is inside the turkey, which is somehow inside the original chicken, and you’ll have an idea of what’s going on.

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One of the tales centers on a young comic-book artist named Emma (Alison Pill, suggesting a bleached-blonde version of Enid from “Ghost World”), who works with her slovenly boyfriend, Bob (Tyler Laine), in a factory that produces made-to-order sex dolls. Intimidated by the dolls’ physical perfection — at least, by the standards of the creeps who order them — the relatively petite Emma decides to get jumbo breast implants, a decision she regrets almost immediately.

The subject of Emma’s latest comic strip — which becomes the second of the film’s three stories — is the aforementioned director, Edward Deacon, a swaggering, hard-partying womanizer played by Gael García Bernal (whose presence ably registers even in animated form). Understandably tired of being insulted and objectified by every male in sight, Emma seizes revenge by subjecting Edward to a humiliating penile reduction, prompting a sexual and artistic blockage of “8½” proportions.

This leaves Edward floundering on the set of his latest film, the live-action footage from which furnishes the movie’s third story, about a vacationing model named Michelle (Mariana Ximenes) who aspires to write a novel. No points for guessing what the book is about. Suffice to say that the controlled chaos that ensues across the board — as one crisis begets another which begets another — carries echoes of everything from the meta-conceits of Marc Forster’s “Stranger Than Fiction” to the worlds-within-worlds of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” with a faint dash of the Looney Tunes classic “Duck Amuck” for good measure.

Is there a point to all these cheeky meta-shenanigans? Not really. Yet it’s hard not to share Morelli’s delight in the possibilities of an impossible story structure, and if the final work feels inevitably uneven, that’s less a flaw than a feature — a testament to the visual and tonal distinctiveness of the movie’s individual parts.

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Emma’s adventures, which eventually find her and Bob entering the cocaine trade, have a wry, sardonic tone emphasized by the use of distanced, symmetrical master shots. Michelle’s story, a sly parody of art-house style, has a much rawer handheld look, full of intense closeups and canted angles. (The cinematography is the work of the versatile Adrian Teijido.)

Most striking of all is the sharply drawn, vibrantly hued rotoscope segment, which is also the most sexually explicit of the three. Inexplicably, however, Emma’s own drawings seem to have been filtered through a straight male gaze: There’s incidental female nudity aplenty, but nary a glimpse of the downsized male member that sets the tale in motion. It’s by far the most revealing of the film’s lessons about sexist double standards and the perils of authorship, and perhaps the least intentional.

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‘Zoom’

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Unrated

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood

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