We’re sure when writer/director Jaco Van Dormael first came up with the premise for “Mr. Nobody,” his first film since 1996’s “The Eighth Day,” it seemed like a fresh and original idea. Certainly we were intrigued back in 2009 by the time-spanning tale about a man who wakes up in the year 2092 to find himself 120 years old, the oldest man in the world and the last mortal in a world where nobody dies. But, unfortunately, a number of other films have come along in the interim of the long-delayed film—”The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button,” “The Fountain,” “Inception,””Cloud Atlas“—that have also flirted with the territory of time, memory, fate, destiny, and love. To be certain, even if those films never existed, it wouldn’t make the achingly juvenile “Mr. Nobody” any better, but the fact that they do only makes the flaws in Dormael’s film stand out even more.
It’s hard to know where to begin addressing the myriad problems with “Mr. Nobody,” but the setting seems like a good place to start considering that, ultimately, it has absolutely no bearing on the story. In short, there is no reason for this film to take place in 2092. Aside from allowing Dormael to play around with CGI and create a futuristic vision that seems lifted (with a smaller budget) straight from “The Fifth Element,” there is actually no plot-driven basis for the film to be set in 2092 other than to give Nemo/Mr. Nobody (Jared Leto) a place to die and tell his story. In fact, the film doesn’t even reveal why people are suddenly blessed with immortality, why Nemo is excluded from being able to take part in this wonderful scientific breakthrough, or how he’s been able to live so long. This is just the first of many major story situations where Dormael takes the audience’s trust for granted.
But, onwards, the story finally begins—after a muddled opening twenty minutes—when a reporter breaks into the hospital room where Nemo is staying in the future and asks him to talk about his life for posterity. Again, no reason is given why Nemo is being kept away from reporters other than it appears that he’s having trouble with his memory. As he recounts his story (which basically puts the rest of the film into a flashback), three separate versions of Nemo’s life emerge. Like the last season of “Lost,” which dealt in parallel timelines, the same applies here, only Nemo’s memory is also remembering those of his parallel lives; those started and lived by another version of himself, had he made or not made certain decisions at key points in his life. Again, the internal logic is never elaborated, just presented for the audience to accept, but without a structural basis to make it stick. There is no explanation why Nemo can do this and why no one else can, it just is.
Nemo’s life appears to have been marked by two things: his parents’ (Rhys Ifans and Natasha Little) divorce and being the object of affection of girls in his elementary school days. CUE BUTTERFLY EFFECT. For (again) unexplored reasons, this is the turning point of his life and his parallel lives seem to diverge from here as we get plot threads for what would happen if he had chosen each girl. The rest of the film recounts these relationships in what is supposed be something dramatic and romantic (we suppose), but each life is so pathetic, so bereft of joy and riddled with discord, it’s no small wonder that Nemo didn’t just off himself.
The first relationship with Jean (Linh-Dan Pham) is so briefly touched upon that it’s hardly worth addressing, but in this version of his life, he is extremely wealthy and unhappy because he keeps confusing dreams and memories from his other parallel lives and he thinks he is not leading the life he should. Next is Anna (Juno Temple as the younger version, Diane Kruger as the older). In this alternate reality, following his parent’s divorce, he goes to live with his mother who soon takes up with another man who has a daughter Nemo’s age. They fall in love, leading to an illicit affair behind their parent’s back, but are tragically ripped apart when things don’t work out between the adults. They run into each other later in life, even make plans to get together, but Nemo loses adult Anna’s number when a random event from halfway around the world causes a rainstorm to start where he is and a single raindrop falls and smudges the ink on the phone number he’s holding. No, we’re not kidding. Finally, there’s Elise (Sarah Polley), a nearly suicidal depressive who is bedridden and crying when she’s not berating Nemo or scaring the bejeesus out of their kids with her wildly unpredictable behavior.
In setting up these ridiculous, overblown and tragic lives for Nemo, Dormael seems to have forgotten writing in the redemption he was looking for. The question of which one is real and which isn’t doesn’t really matter, but you also don’t want to find out because what Nemo goes through in one lifetime we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy. Not only is Nemo the last mortal on Earth, he also seems to be the unluckiest person who ever lived, earning three sad sack alternate realities. We’re not even going to get into the storyline that has Nemo’s father turn into a cripple after his divorce, unable to wash or feed himself, or the ridiculous tangent about angels.
It also doesn’t help Dormael’s film that his female characters are either slavishly and blandly loyal (Jean), unattainable sexpots (Anna) or depressive and shrill (Elise). It seems the worst thing Nemo did in his life was have terrible taste in women. These are not so much characters that interact with Nemo as obstacles he has to overcome. Even though Polley is listed as the co-star, she’s in the film for maybe twenty minutes at most, most of which she is deep in the throes of a depression. Temple does the best she can with a role that requires her to do little more than act like a horny teenager while Pham seems to be mostly cut out of the film (indeed, there is a strong sense that a lot has been excised from the movie).
While this writer is not fond of walking out on movies, and didn’t with “Mr. Nobody,” the warning signs were there. And they arrived loud and clear when Nemo gave the first of four lectures on physics and string theory directly to the camera during the Anna storyline (it appears he’s some kind of science show TV host, but again, that’s left unexplained as well). We had to stifle our laughter, but when Leto started in on the possibilities of time and space, we were ready to bolt and in retrospect, we really should have. “Mr. Nobody” simply fails to reward your patience and engage your intellect, despite straining very hard to do so. Both overblown and half-baked, too long and not edited enough, “Mr. Nobody” describes exactly the kind of audience it will likely get. [D]