Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: Mr. Nobody

There are certain reviews where you just jump right in. You hit the ground running, and the things you want to say leap forward from your brain to your fingers to your keyboard. These reviews are sprints, and though you might fine-tune them, they are over pretty quickly.

Then there are the reviews where you feel like you're never going to start writing. You spend a ton of time on stretching, to make sure you don't injure yourself in the process of trying to say everything you want to say.

Mr. Nobody is one of the latter types, and that most certainly is a compliment.

I've been stretching long enough, so here goes.

There's something appropriate about the title Mr. Nobody, as it gets at the alarming anonymity of this film. It's one of those movies that is so staggeringly ambitious, and so stunningly executed, that once you watch it, you won't believe you hadn't heard of it earlier than you did. It's one of those movies that tries to tackle nothing less than the total spectrum of human experience, and it's the rare one that actually succeeds. Simply put, it may be a masterpiece.

The plot pretzels around through a number of timelines and possibly alternate (or possibly coexisting) realities, but here are the basics of what we know: Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) is a 118-year-old man who claims the title of "Earth's last mortal." In other words, he's the last human being not to get matched up with a genetically compatible pig who can provide him an endless supply of replacement cells. These keep the rest of the world eternally young in the year 2092, and the whole world has tuned in to watch the death of the last mortal being televised. (A bit like a reverse Children of Men.) In his waning days, a reporter comes to the side of his hospital bed to interview him on what it was like to have lived a mortal life, but Nemo claims to remember very little of his actual life. Under hypnosis, however, he reveals conflicting details about his earlier life -- which parent he chose to live with at age 9, which country he lived in, which career he chose, which of three different women (Diane Kruger, Sarah Polley and Linh Dan Pham) he may have married. Throwing in additional paradoxes, he even seems to have remembered dying on a couple occasions. The flabbergasted reporter tries to figure it all out as the clock may be ticking toward a cataclysmic event that could make the story of Nemo Nobody seem trivial by comparison -- or could make sense of everything the old man has said.

The first thing that should be said about Mr. Nobody (although it's not the first thing I'm actually saying) is that it should have been an utter disaster. Films with this much on their minds regularly trip over themselves in the attempt to get it all out there, and account for some of our most disastrous turkeys in cinematic history. Some people (though not this critic) certainly felt that way about Cloud Atlas, which is one of several epic films Mr. Nobody calls to mind (while actually predating it, which is perfect for this non-linear film). A more direct comparison might be made to Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, another film that radically divided audiences. These films all use multiple time periods, unlikely character relationships and aspects of dream state to get at truths about the human condition, and top it all off with a little science fiction. Like those other movies, Mr. Nobody can't contain itself to a mere 100 minutes, clocking in at nearly two hours and 20 minutes, which is extravagant especially for a film with exclusively foreign financial backing.

Everyone involved with this extravaganza backed the right horse in writer-director Jaco Van Dormael, who has been unleashed upon us from the cinematic hotbed of Belgium. The man was responsible for two critically acclaimed Belgian films in the 1990s before launching on his quixotic quest to make Mr. Nobody way back in 2001, a dream that was finally realized when filming began in 2007. Instead of having disaster written all over, the film somehow attained a synergy that approaches brilliance.

Merely structuring a film that jumps between not only timelines, but time periods within those timelines, is a feat of great difficulty. Then giving his scenes a transcendent sort of harmony, one that gives the film a surprisingly coherence and cohesiveness, is yet more difficult. What seems just like showing off, however, is how Van Dormael actually segues between these scenes, frequently using seamless digital camera tricks that allow one shot to blend into another, while simultaneously jumping across continents and years -- and even sometimes placing the same characters in new contexts at impossible new angles to their surroundings. It's a feat of fluidity better witnessed by a viewer than described.

But I think I'm still talking around what makes Mr. Nobody such a singular cinematic experience -- still doing more stretching, as it were. What this film is doing with such accessible effectiveness is exploring ideas that have been explored in lesser films -- many films of so-called "hyperlink cinema" -- with a new vitality that makes them freshly invigorating. The much-discussed butterfly effect is actually name-checked in this movie, a reflection of Van Dormael's interest in how the smallest of actions and decisions have a ripple effect that can change a person's whole life. But if you're rolling your eyes at having seen this thing on screen in a hundred pseudo-intellectual attempts at profundity, roll them back to their starting position. Van Dormael actually has something new to say here, or at least a new way to say it.

Mr. Nobody considers the life of a man in terms of all the events that shaped him, and all the events that could have shaped him. While numerous films have invited us to contemplate how our lives might have turned out differently had we, say, failed to make it through a pair of sliding doors on the tube (see the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors), few have imagined these realities woven together in a way that gives a tapestry of meaning to the life in question. The point is that Nemo Nobody is the byproduct of both the things he's done and the things he hasn't done, simultaneously, because the other versions of himself that had those intentions are still buried somewhere inside him. What emerges in this film is a true, deep, sensitively considered portrait of us -- any of us -- tortured as we are by the avenues we didn't take, maybe only in fragments of dreams we've forgotten by morning.

I've hinted at the expert quality of the production design, as several time periods as well as what is certainly a dream timeline are all sewn together to give us a panoply of recurring images and motifs. What I haven't spoken of is the fantastic lead performance by Jared Leto, who was giving those lucky enough to see this a couple years ago a preview of the type of dramatic range that would win him an Oscar. Leto isn't doing all the heavy lifting in this movie -- Toby Regbo in particular bears a large amount of the burden as Nemo at age 15. But Leto manages to become several different versions of Nemo at age 34, as well as the 118-year-old man in layers of old person makeup that render him truly unrecognizable. Leto expresses different yearnings and realities in all the forms he takes on, some in larger narrative threads, some in shorter timelines that only have a brief realization on screen. It's his fine performance that delivers us a death-bed version of a man we truly feel we've come to understand.

One could continue with the accolades without truly feeling like they've gotten to the bottom of what makes this movie so effective, and I know I'll have to stop writing today without actually getting there. That's in part intentional, as the idea with a movie like Mr. Nobody is to whet appetites, but leave most of its marvelous discoveries up to the viewer. That would be my truest responsibility to both Mr. Nobody and to you.

It's streaming on Netflix. Don't stop and stretch -- sprint after it right now.

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