Directed by: Jaco Van Dormael
Premise: An old man reflects on his life, realizing that the lynchpin of his existence occurred when his parents divorced and he was forced to choose between living with either his mother or his father. That choice would result in radically different life paths and in his recollections he explores both possibilities.
What Works: How a viewer feels about Mr. Nobody is going to depend greatly on what he or she wants from a motion picture. Most mainstream movies are produced within a very narrow set of creative and narrative guidelines and Hollywood pictures in particular exist to distract and entertain—but not necessarily challenge—the viewer for a couple of hours. Mr. Nobody is not one of those films. This is a picture operating on a different set of aesthetic and narrative rules and so this is a movie best appreciated by viewers who are open to the possibilities of cinema beyond straightforward narrative genre filmmaking. This is a picture that exists in the same category (if not on the same level of quality) as The Fountain, The Tree of Life, Synecdoche, New York and Cloud Atlas. The filmmakers are very creative with the narrative structure, and their story is disorienting with plotlines that interweave as a kaleidoscope of events and images. Because of the bold nature of the filmmaking, Mr. Nobody is the kind of picture that probably needs to be screened multiple times in order to be fully appreciated. This is an ambitious picture and viewers who would rather watch an ambitious failure instead of a mediocre success will probably respond to this film the most positively. Like a lot of movies of this sort, Mr. Nobody is most impressive in its construction. The way the filmmakers have assembled their various narrative strands and the way in which they have visualized abstract concepts is impressive. The film also includes two notable performances. The title role of Mr. Nobody is played by Jared Leto, who is required to play multiple versions of the same character. He makes subtle choices in each segment of the film that distinguishes each of his incarnations. The film also has an impressive supporting performance by Sarah Polly as a woman suffering from severe bipolar disorder. Polly’s scenes are the most emotionally resonant of the film and that is largely due to her contributions.
What Doesn’t: Mr. Nobody was original screened at film festivals in 2009 and has since opened in other territories before finally getting an American theatrical release in 2013. Should this film find an audience it has the potential to spawn a cult following. Mainstream audiences are unlikely to respond to it but even for viewers who enjoy pictures like this, Mr. Nobody comes up quite short. This film aspires to pictures like 2001: A Space Odyssey but as stylistically bold and narratively confounding as it may be, the ideas in it are not nearly as profound or important as the filmmakers seem to think that they are. In fact, the crew of Mr. Nobody makes some critical mistakes. Part of the pleasure found in movies like 2001 and The Fountain is the way in which the filmmakers of those movies assembled complex and sometimes abstract imagery but then refused to explain to the audience what that imagery meant. These films required engagement by the audience and the viewers who most appreciate these pictures are those who take pleasure in the challenge of decoding the film. Mr. Nobody explains too much. There is very little for the audience to speculate upon when the film is complete and the filmmakers do themselves a disservice by limiting the possibilities. Mr. Nobody is also lacking in its emotional appeal. The movie is about love and human relationships but too much of the picture is often cold and lifeless. It does not have a sense of momentum and the arrangement of many scenes comes across as arbitrary, as though they could be restructured in any order.
Bottom Line: Mr. Nobody is a film that is difficult to recommend because it is unlikely to appeal to a mainstream audience but even the art house crowd is likely to find it underwhelming because it is so compromised. But those who enjoy movies of this sort may want to check it out simply for its ambitions.
Episode: #467 (November 24, 2013)