A surreal comedy about the cycle of life, Bob Byington's "Somebody Up There Likes Me" is consistently silly and poignant at once. A step up in production values and ambition from Byington's previous efforts "Harmony and Me" and "RSO: Registered Sex Offender," this latest work features a charming existential bent in which everyone is a prisoner of destiny.
The story covers 35 years in the life of a man named Max (Byington regular Keith Poulson) as he falls in love with waitress Lyla (Jess Weixler) and starts a family with her. When melodramatic events impact their cozy existence, Max turns to business pursuits, assisted by his devout friend Sal (the hilarious Nick Offerman, best known as Ron Swanson on NBC's "Parks and Recreation") to build an empire of pizza and ice cream. But no matter how many changes impact Max's career and private life, he never ages a day, nor does his close circle of friends and family--with the exception of his son, who seemingly catches up with his father.
That's a tricky storytelling device that allows Byington to get away with working on a low budget, but "Somebody Up There Likes Me" hardly needs the big bucks to convey its wise perspective. The movie proceeds in five year intervals with smarmy rapid-fire dialogue that would make Preston Sturges dizzy. Byington's droll sense of humor holds the speedy pace together, but the structural trickery never feels erratic. Because the characters don't age, they remain stuck in their ways and trapped by the inevitability of time.
Aided by Chris Baio's cheery soundtrack and bright interstitial animations, "Somebody Up There Likes Me" has a good-natured vibe despite the prevalent sense of frustration dominating Max's world. Byington's disarming approach grows increasingly affecting; by its later scenes, the movie has settled into its breathless rhythm, allowing the filmmaker to combine his absurd style with uniquely formulated pathos within the context of the outlandishness narrative.
In the hands of another filmmaker, Byington's approach might come across as gimmicky or overly precious. Instead, "Somebody Up There Likes Me" retains a playfully philosophical edge. "You know you're old when you sneeze and lose a tooth," Sal says at one point, in one of many strangely amusing and thoughtful one-liners in this fortune cookie of a movie. The tone combines supreme deadpan delivery with a light, airy atmosphere that brings to mind Wes Anderson without the requisite pandering to hip expectations. There's nothing inherently cool or exciting about Max, and yet in his endless quest to find happiness in life--or in death--he's a supremely likable creation who endures multiple eras with the same passive attitude, and so emerges as an everyman for all times (including, during the quasi-science fiction finale, a version of the future that brings to mind "Idiocracy").
The ultimate achievement of "Somebody Up There Likes Me" involves the way Byington handles tragedy. Although dark humor defines the overall mood, the abruptness of death is treated as a deeply serious affair. On several occasions, a character seen alive and well in one scene lies beneath a tombstone moments later. Byington's nimble pace enables this trickery to have a sneakily emotional effect.
Setting aside its constant gags, there's no doubting Byington's profound intentions: Opening and closing by teasing the contents of a mysterious suitcase a la "Pulp Fiction," "Somebody Up There Likes Me" is best seen as an entirely abstract work rich with incidents and symbolism. But it never slows down to linger on drearier moments or draw out its dramatic circumstances. Byington excels at turning the edict that time waits for no one into a sensory experience. No matter how sly it gets, "Somebody Up There Likes Me" still retains that fundamental truth.
Criticwire grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Byington's most accessible film to date, "Somebody Up There Likes Me" received a warm response from the SXSW crowd, partly because of Byington is Austin-based. However, its enjoyable fusion of comedy and drama should play well at other festivals, where it will have its biggest life. However, midsize distributors may be able to help the movie land a cult following in limited release, where it stands a chance at doing solid business.