Jaco Van Dormael tries to say everything in his kinda-silly, kinda-profound, gorgeously rendered 'Mr. Nobody'
Mr. Nobody Magnolia Pictures
Director: Jaco Van Dormael
Screenplay: Jaco Van Dormael
Starring: Jared Leto, Toby Regbo, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Juno Temple, Lina Dan Pham, Daniel Mays and Rhys Ifans
Rated R / 2 hours, 21 minutes
Now available in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
"What's it about?"
"Everything? You mean, for instance, it's about cancer?"
"How about ... my wife?"
"She's in there, too."
- Charles Bukowski, Factotum
If nothing else, Jaco Van Dormael should be congratulated for actually making the movie that everyone wanted to make when they were in college. That sprawling magnum opus that said everything you wanted to say about the world - about love and death and existence and sex and art and fate and chance and choice and tragedy and consciousness and the human soul and the future of humanity. He did it. He made it. Cut to: Every filmmaker, aspiring filmmaker, film-school washout and film-studies major giving Jaco Van Dormael* the slow clap treatment.
* He also deserves congratulations for having an awesome director name. "Jaco Van Dormael"? That's such an awesomely fake-sounding director name, I'm just going to assume it's made up. All I'm saying is: If I had a name like that, I would definitely be a successful filmmaker by now.
This is the kind of genre-hopping, timeline-shifting, centuries-spanning experiment that seems almost bound to astonish in terms of its ambitions alone, but also doomed to fall short of those ambitions, perhaps in a big and laughable way. Or, at least, initially laughable. It's always easy to snicker at wide swaths like this, especially because it's so difficult for such movies to hide. They're going for broke and they want everyone to know it. Their hearts are right on their sleeves. However, seeing the reaction to Mr. Nobody this year, I wonder if the tide is changing a bit.
The film was completed back in 2009 and played festivals that fall, and - just off the top of my head - I remember hearing mostly derisive comments from those who'd seen it. Now that it's finally been released four years later, the reaction has been much more positive, if tempered. The finished product may be a proverbial grand folly, but it almost seems like we're used to it by now. In the wake of such similar recent "follies" as Cloud Atlas, The Fountain and Synecdoche, New York (as well as somewhat less-known examples like Across the Universe or this year's Upside Down), something like Mr. Nobody may go down easier. Quicker, at least. The notorious likes of Heaven's Gate and Ishtar, for example, have undergone a critical reappraisal in recent years, but it took two or three decades. Mr. Nobody, for all its silliness and for all the ways it fails (or seems to fail, after one viewing), is seemingly able to be taken seriously right away. Whether that's a coincidence or a trend, I can't say for sure.
What I can say with a bit more certainty is that this is a rather remarkable piece of filmmaking, but one whose thought doesn't quite keep pace. The reductiveness of its ideas - what if I had chosen Dad when my parents divorced instead of Mom? what if I had wound up with this girl instead of that one? what if I were the last mortal on Earth? what if . . . um . . . something something butterfly effect? - is almost charming, but kinda trite. But Van Dormael submerges those concepts into a more freewheeling mosaic of memories and subjective imagery, where all possibilities are simultaneously real and imagined.
The absurdly named Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) wakes up near the end of the 21st Century, well over 100 years old and the subject of an interview from a strange psychiatrist covered in face tattoos. He is the star of the day, the last mortal man on Earth, the rest of humanity having long since stopped aging or dying. To those in this future society, Nemo is the last link between them and humankind's past. Most of the film takes place during the various earlier stages of Nemo's life, from pre-birth, to childhood, to adolescence and finally into adulthood.
For him, the puzzle of his life dates back to the moment on a train platform when he had to choose between living with his father (Rhys Ifans) or his mother (Natasha Little). We see both possibilities, and within those possibilities lie new choices and diverging paths. Over here, a teenaged Nemo (Toby Regbo) has his first great love affair with his stepsister Anna (Juno Temple). Over there, he spurns Anna and they meet again years later as adults.
Over here, he falls for and eventually marries Elise (Clare Stone as a teenager, Sarah Polley as an adult). Over there, he winds up with Jean (Linh Dan Pham). There's an interplay between the varying storylines, and storylines within storylines, that, for better or worse, makes it feel a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure book. But Van Dormael's images and editing get under the skin of his ideas, as he zeroes in on the kinds of small details that so often crystallize moments into our memories - a slight touch, a glance, a word, a phrase - and in the various connections that link Nemo's disparate lives.
Van Dormael really does try to do everything with this movie. He begins in preexistence, just before [baby] Nemo is sent to Earth, and it's a sequence that feels simultaneously like a Terrence Malick movie, a Woody Allen sketch and a diaper commercial. I can't say it entirely works, but I also can't say I've seen any other movie this year in which an unborn soul interviews prospective parents (in Wes Anderson-style tableaus) before finally settling on the right pair.
But for all the chances Van Dormael takes - often trusting his audiences to accept and understand the leaps he's getting across with his editing and his narratives' inherent evasiveness - he nonetheless falls into the trap of trying to explain a bit too much, to organize the chaos of the movie's ideas rather than let it be. One version of Leto's character is an instructor for educational videos (think Nova), but during those scenes it's hard not to feel like it's the filmmaker himself lecturing us on the anthropological and theoretical ideas governing his own movie.
The other problem is the cutaways to a reporter character (Daniel Mays) who sneaks into Old Nemo's room to interview him about his life. It's an obvious device and a cheap plot to get Nemo to dictate his story in a more linear and organized fashion than is necessary. "I'm confused," the reporter says. "Your stories are contradicting each other. Did you stay with your father, or go with your mother?"
"Ugh!" we say. "You're an idiot, Mr. Reporter! Go away!"
Cut the reporter out of the film altogether and you're left with a stronger film - not to mention a more confident one. What Van Dormael is attempting can stand enough on its own - and often does, during the majority in which the reporter isn't present - without having to superficially guide us along like that.
It's problematic particularly because Mr. Nobody himself works best as a sort of avatar for everything and everybody - for every possibility, be it by luck or by choice, life has to offer - rather than as a literal character that someone needs to decode or define.
As for the film as a whole, Mr. Nobody may indeed be a folly, if only because its ambitions are virtually impossible to encapsulate through any one person, or in any 140-minute package. But this kind of folly isn't necessarily such a bad thing, is it? Foolish or not, there's a sense of curiosity, imagination and optimism pervading Mr. Nobody that, to me at least, exemplifies the instinct that drives us to tell stories, and make movies, in the first place. For better or worse, this is the movie that many people, at one point or another, wanted to make themselves.