A special effects–heavy sci-fi epic full of young A-list (well, maybe B-plus-list) stars, budgeted at $58 million, making it the most expensive Belgian film made to that date, Jaco Van Dormael's Mr. Nobody screened at the Toronto and Venice film festivals in 2009, and then more or less disappeared.
Never distributed in the U.S. despite (or maybe because of) its thematic and superficial similarity to the previous year's awards season also-ran The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Nobody will resurface in Los Angeles this weekend, one of two films selected by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for their annual L.A. Film Fest sidebar "The Films That Got Away." (For what it's worth: I'm a member of LAFCA but I was not involved in the "Films That Got Away" curation process.)
As odd as it may seem that there could be a lost Jared Leto film dependent on — even deserving of — activist film critics to rescue it from the dustbin of history, it's not much of a surprise that the two-and-a-half-hour, willfully (if playfully) obtuse Nobody "got away" to begin with.
In the film's 2092-set framing story, Nemo Nobody (Leto, appearing alternately in severe aging makeup and as his youthful, beautiful self) is a 118-year-old invalid being kept in some kind of observation facility. The rest of the human race has achieved "quasi-immortality," rendering sex obsolete, and they're eagerly watching and waiting for Nobody, the last mortal left alive, to die.
With the end apparently near, a journalist comes to visit Nobody to record his recollections of life before the certainty of death was eradicated. Nobody wistfully remembers meat, cigarettes, pollution. "We did everything we can't do in this dump and it was wonderful," he says. "Most of the time, nothing happened. Like a French movie. Everybody was always screwing."
Dying Nobody goes on to give the journalist several different versions of his life story. These diverging narratives, presented on-screen as fragments intercut out of order, all take off from the traumatic moment when 9-year-old Nobody was asked by his divorcing mom and dad to pick one with whom to live. "As long as you don't choose, everything remains possible," the child realizes, a truism that becomes a lifelong affliction.
The film wades through every life outcome that seems possible to preadolescent Nemo. He could become a straight-laced suburban dad with a basket-case wife (Sarah Polley) and a brood of kids holding him down. Or perhaps he ends up a longhaired free spirit who encounters his first love (Diane Kruger as an adult, Juno Temple as a teen) by chance, disappearing into her embrace only to lose her again to an accident of chaos theory. He half-remembers, half-fantasizes being an unborn child in a hazy prelapsarian space full of angels and unicorns. He could become an artist, an executive, a scientist with a TV show on which he presents theories of temporal dimensionality that echo the film's structural conceits. He could travel to Mars — or at least imagine it.
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Unfolding in overlapping layers of memory, dream and hallucination, withholding clues as to which stories within the story should be taken as Nemo's "true" biography, Mr. Nobody often sinks deeply into one narrative realm, and then shifts, whiplash-quick, into another. Van Dormael recognizes and attempts to inoculate his film from the criticism that it's impossibly convoluted by having the confused, flustered journalist comment on it, but to an adventurous viewer, its puzzle structure will be its key selling point.
Mr. Nobody consciously references the history of time-travel and alternate-psychological-reality flicks, not least in its musical choices — "Mr. Sandman" is used as a refrain in a manner that recalls Back to the Future, and it's impossible to see a scene set in the crumbling landscape of the mind scored to the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" and not think of another Leto film, Fight Club.
Mr. Nobody arrives in Los Angeles at perhaps the perfect time, as its ideal audience has just been primed for the charms of its assaultive, romantic indeterminacy by Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.
THE FILMS THAT GOT AWAY: MR. NOBODY | Sat., June 25, 9:45 p.m. | L.A. Film Fest at REDCAT | lafilmfest.com