I’ve been wondering just how to go about doing this review about Mr. Nobody, Belgian filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael’s uber-trippy mind opus that kicks around the notions of destiny, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, existence, free will, pigeon superstition, butterfly effect and multiple universes among other things. It ain’t exactly an easy film to describe, other than it’s one of those “deep thinking” pieces that’s going to stick with you for a long time after you see it. It’s probably a hell of a film to which to get stoned. It floats ideas out there that have been done by various time travel films and especially by hyper-intelligent films like Inception. In fact, Mr. Nobody challenges you much like that film. But then it adds a completely new dimension (a couple dozen actually) by forcing you to keep track of enough storylines to fill up a season of any TV show. Then it wraps them all in beautiful cinematography and special effects, and a fine, complicated central performance by Jared Leto and some good supporting work by names like Diane Kruger, Sarah Polley, Juno Temple, Toby Regbo and Clare Stone.
The story (er…stories) centers on the reflections of a 118-year-old man in the year 2092, named Nemo aka Mr. Nobody (Leto in enough old man latex to be Knoxville’s running buddy in Bad Grampa). Due to mankind’s advancements with unlimited cell replacement, the human race has gained virtual immortality, except for Old Nemo, who wasn’t compatible with the process. Now he’s set to become the last mortal to die of old age. He’s asked to reveal his life story via two ways, a hypnotizing session with a Dr. Feldheim (Allan Corduner), who looks like the Conundrum’s great grandson, and through an interview with a journalist who sneaks into his hospital room.
Old Nemo’s recollections center on three key periods in his life: age nine, age 15 and age 34. When he was nine, Nemo (Thomas Byrne) faced the impossible decision of with which parent to stay or go (Rhys Ifans, Natasha Little) when they split up and she leaves via train. Then there’s the moment at a dance, where 15-year-old Nemo (Toby Regbo) either falls in love with Elise (Clare Stone), who really loves someone else, or settles for Jean (Audrey Giacomini), or, he fell in love with his one, true love, Anna (Juno Temple), his step-sister and daughter of his mother’s new boyfriend. But when his mother and her boyfriend split up, Nemo loses Anna until he’s 34…or not. When he’s 34, Nemo (Leto), has a myriad of lives, including being happily married to Elise (Sarah Polley), who dies in an accident, not being happily married to Elise, who is suffering from severe depression, being married to Joan (Linh Dan Pham) in a loveless marriage, finding Anna (Diane Kruger) by chance in a crowded train station, finding her with a husband and two kids, finding her then losing her number when the ink runs after getting wet.
34-year-old Nemo is a host of a science TV show (where Van Dormael deftly works in a lot of the math and science of Nemo’s situation, existence, multiple universes, etc). In another reality, he decides to impersonate a man’s identity at an airport and gets murdered in a hotel by a hitman by mistake. Nemo crashes into a lake and drowns. Then there’s this whole side thing about going to Mars to scatter ashes. Then there’s this other whole thing about 34-year-old Nemo not existing because he is only a future construct in the mind of his nine-year-old self. Something bad happens on the space station, his 15-year-old self crashes on his bike after the dance and is paralyzed. He takes Joan home on his bike after the same dance and doesn’t crash. He wakes up in a world of plaid. He gives himself a video message from the future saying that he doesn’t exist. These are all based on recollections of a flighty old man who might or might not exist only in the mind of his nine-year-old self who has to make an impossible decision. Entropy plays a part, as does the Big Crumch (the bookend to the Big Bang), when the whole shebang closes back in on itself. Like I said, it’s all uber-trippy.
Setting aside that the whole thing is a two-hour blipvert of alternatives that has everything to do with choices and nothing to do with choices, Van Dormael somehow manages to make it all make sense, or at least not be so confusing as to make you want to check out of it in frustration (like a couple of scenes in Matrix: Reloaded that come to mind). I’m convinced he threw in a couple of storylines just to fuck around. The alternatives and counterparts come at the drop of a hat, connect tenuously with each other and not at all. But Leto is the thing that holds it all together. I’ve lost track of Leto the last few years, but his work is great here. I can only imagine what it took to keep this whole thing straight in his head. Juno Temple and Toby Regbo are also good as young lovers Nemo and Anna, as are Sarah Polley and Diane Kruger. But it’s really Van Dormael who manages to keep this ship righted when it could have run aground at any time if he hadn’t kept a tight rein on the wheel (why I’m using nautical metaphors I don’t know, but just go with it). He shoots the film gorgeously and the effects are good, very much in service to the film without getting in the way.
Even as the film and its schizophrenic pace seem to become overwhelming, it all does end up making sense in the end. But if there’s a complaint, it’s that, at 141 minutes (and 157 in the director’s cut), it asks you to hold on a really long time to get there. But if you do, you’ll come through the experience amazed I think. Mr. Nobody is available now on iTunes / On Demand, and in theatres (finally, the damn thing came out in January 2010 in Europe) on November 1 here in the States. If you exist I urge you to check it out.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars