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by Michael Koresky
September 14, 2009 11:26 AM
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REVIEW | Mindlessness Over Matter: Jaco van Dormael's "Mr. Nobody"

A scene from Jaco Van Dormael's "Mr. Nobody." Image courtesy of TIFF.

Quick, what do string theory, the butterfly effect, 21st-century dystopia, the possibility of quasi-immortality, the unquantifiablity of time, the impermanence of memory, death, love, second sight, the heartache of divorce, missions to Mars, and Jared Leto's baby blues have in common? After seeing "Mr. Nobody" I'm still not sure, though I am confident that writer-director Jaco van Dormael seems to think they're all part of the same thematic continuum. Almost moving in its gonzo self-assuredness and take-no-prisoners narrative scope -- although with the nearly 140-minute running time, that could just be my exhaustion talking -- "Mr. Nobody" is as ambitious as it is incoherent, an obvious labor of love that's equal parts science-fiction, romance, and Lynchian mind game. Yet with the film's maddening circular structure and often thudding visual expositions, the experience of watching it isn't quite as enjoyable as a description might augur. The central problem of "Mr. Nobody" isn't really that in the end it doesn't seem to make much sense (literal, metaphorical, or otherwise), but that, unlike in the similarly intentionally befuddling "Donnie Darko," the getting there isn't all that fun.

When not hidden behind old-man latex in the film's ostensible wraparound story, Leto seems cast first and foremost for his beauty, considering that he often has little more to do than look soulfully awestruck into a camera often pressed so close to his face that you can count the individual hairs of stubble on his chin. In fact, this reliance on extreme close-up seems to be the main aesthetic decision of van Dormael and his cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne; the result is an incredibly claustrophobic, spatially disorienting visual experience that makes the already damn near impenetrable narrative doubly disconcerting.

"Mr. Nobody" opens, appropriately, in a morgue, before going on to show us, in quick succession, all sorts of bizarre end-of-life scenarios that befall our protagonist, Nemo, from a terrifying drowning to a shocking bathtub shooting, to a 112-year-old version of hinself at death's door, insistently rasping that he's actually 34 years old. In this section, the film offers all sorts of satiric images of future shock, including a Perez Hilton--type gossip show host, with his microphone surgically implanted in his cheek, cattily discussing the human race's necessity for stem-cell compatible pigs and promoting the TV broadcast of this "last mortal"'s final days on Earth. This broad, comedic approach, however, is summarily dropped, and, after a bizarre tangent featuring (wait for it) unicorns and "angels of oblivion," the film settles somewhat into a dramatic coming-of-age narrative, showing Nemo's upbringing, from the wrenching divorce of his parents, who made the horrific decision to force little Nemo to choose between them, to his various romances and heartbreaks as a gorgeously troubled, and unexpectedly British, teen (Tony Regbo).

The problem is that van Dormael's take on these moments is so dramatically forced, overlaid with so much melodramatic posing and mystical non sequiturs, that it never gives us the human and emotional grounding we need for the rest of the film's fanciful, dreamlike roller coaster narrative to function in any meaningful way. Constantly looping back on itself, showing without warning various scenarios that could have been in Nemo's life, including his domestic existence with three different wives (Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, and Linh Dan Pham) in disparate dimensions, while also finding time to fold in an entirely separate outer-space thread based on a short story written by teenage Nemo, "Mr. Nobody" seems more interested in impressing and confounding its audience than in making a rich, rationally existential statement (like, say, the similarly mammoth, difficult, but infinitely more rewarding "Synecdoche, New York"). Van Dormael's need to show off is evident in his every shock cut, in his choice to film a terrible car accident in elegant slow motion, in his expertly timed musical cues, which use everything from Erik Satie to Buddy Holly, employing them for either earnest or ironic effect.

Surely "Mr. Nobody" must cohere in its maker's mind, but he's unable, perhaps willfully so, to translate that vision to the screen for the viewer. Naturally for a film this steeped in its own construction, there are oodles of film references, from Lars von Trier's "Europa" to "Harold and Maude" to, most bizarrely, "A Woman Under the Influence," in a squirm-inducing scene in which Polley's depressed housewife joins their daughter's birthday party and proceeds to make herself into an embarrassing dancing child. Polley, ever the game actress on the lookout for idiosyncratic films, performs the scene well, but the odd, Cassavetes-cribbed naturalism of the scene speaks to "Mr. Nobody"'s anything-goes hamfistedness. Perhaps it's appropriate for a film that seems to proscribe so heavily to chaos theory: with no unifying deterministic vision, from scene to scene van Dormael just goes whatever way the wind blows.

TAGS: Reviews
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18 Comments

  • Not your Business | September 28, 2013 7:15 AMReply

    The reviewer didn't get the movie.

    "The central problem of "Mr. Nobody" isn't really that in the end it doesn't seem to make much sense"

    There's no real definition for "sense". The coherency the reviewer is looking for in this movie is blocked by in his own view of the world, is his own reality.

    I would resume the movie in the following quote:
    "Every path is the right path. Everything could have been anything else and it would have just as much meaning."

  • Daniel Corradini | September 10, 2013 1:49 AMReply

    I'd strongly recommend that this reviewer watch Mr Nobody again, and pay more attention to the plot this time, and less to movie comparisons, filmmaking style, and art school jargons, etc.
    I may be "biased", for being such a huge fan of the movie, but it's very rich when you pay attention to the "phylosophy" underlying it, and the way it was edited totally matches the story it tries to tell (coherently as it should).
    Again, Mr Nobody is not for everyone, some rare few may get it at a first watch, and it may be necessary to watch it several times in order to start noticing how every little piece of the story is part of a whole, and being shown in their right place...
    I must have watched it over 15 times (just for fun, for thinking, or everytime I recommended it to someone else), and would suggest that anyone watching it for the first time to watch it again and once more, and really pay attention to the details of the story, and to the message behind every bit of it...

  • Full Hand Joe | March 31, 2013 8:40 PMReply

    This is one of the best movies i ever saw in my life.

  • cheng yue | December 21, 2012 10:01 PMReply

    Delightful. Kept me amused and smiling throughout the entire film with its inteligent narrative and sensible soundtrack.
    I'm 70 and this movie offered me a surreal vision to the different paths MY LIFE could have taken.
    My best movie of 2012 so far.

  • Jean-Marc | November 25, 2012 11:54 PMReply

    This review is as blunt as it is incoherent. It reeks of condescendence, undermining a touching and thought provoking film. I welcome opinions conflicting with my own but I regret to say that underneath the thick layers of pretentiousness this review offers nothing but weak conclusions drawn from shallow analysis and witless argumentation.

    I would strongly encourage anyone interested in going down an introspective journey to venture forth and watch Mr. Nobody. I found it to be a deeply enriching and beautifully executed film.

  • Wozzek | August 17, 2012 11:49 PMReply

    Author of this "review" is an idiot.

  • Marta | May 16, 2012 3:18 AMReply

    Finally a true critic of this movie. I totally agree with you. I was so disapppointed that so many people liked a movie with so many film references. They obviously didn't watch originals that I would recommend.

  • Marisol | March 18, 2012 11:18 AMReply

    I totally disagree with this review!!
    This could very well be the Best Movie I have ever seen, reaching deeper into the viewers mind. I found it wonderfully abstract, in the way one can make their own interpreti on of it. It carries alot of hidden message about the truth of our existence. Quantum physics is an underlining subject here. I loved it and can't wait to watch it again!

  • Melanie | October 14, 2011 7:26 AMReply

    I was experiencing a spiritual jarring last night and wanted to see a film that would ease some of the burden in my heart. I'm constantly reminded that my future is completely uncertain, and this fact has always dragged me down. I went to the movie store wanting to see something that would either completely distract me from my thoughts, or enrich my spirit through its ideas. I found nothing on the shelf that caught my eye; it was all the same old Hollywood bunk. But then, just as I was about to give up, I saw Mr. Nobody. I read the back, and instantly knew I needed to watch this film. I just sat there in awe at the stunning shots, weighty concepts, and the incredible acting. I think, despite its circular content, it all ties together very nicely and leaves one breathless at the end. It's one film that won't be leaving my head anytime soon.

  • Rachel | September 11, 2011 1:27 AMReply

    I respect your ideas and opinions of this film but I have to say, I can't disagree with you more.
    I think Jared Leto was chosen for his ability to portray every version of Nemo with a beautiful amount of depth and pure emotion, Van Dormael's artistic vision reflected throughout is as inspiring as it is ambitious, and I find much of the film, unlike many popular off-the-Hollywood-conveyer-belt movies, is open to the viewers interpretation, just because it isn't all spelled out for you doesn't make it 'incoherent'.

    In short, a brilliant film full of brilliant people for the creative.

  • Jim | June 13, 2011 10:19 AMReply

    You complain that it's too 'dreamlike', and yet nearly the entire movie IS a dream. What did you expect?

    This movie is fantastic. Don't let this cynic prevent you from watching it.

  • rahmane | March 28, 2011 11:59 AMReply

    I just saw it, and it really left me full, though I can't say exactly of what. I guess that's what makes it, in Lunda's great comment, "tediously interesting."

  • Lunda | February 19, 2011 5:27 AMReply

    Tediously interesting

  • Tanya | January 31, 2011 9:16 AMReply

    The movie is great

  • Maurice Spees | January 16, 2011 1:09 AMReply

    The best movie i ever saw

  • BladeRunn | January 5, 2011 12:48 AMReply

    I couldn't disagree to a further extent with your appreciation of this film; where ever you saw black, I seem to have seen white; whatever you consider where low spots, inconsistencies or plain problems in the storyline, I saw creative, intelligent and masterly crafted narrative and cinematografic style that does not deliver us a digested story, but rather leaves lose ends for us to join together as we envision.
    Being journalist myself, I remember one of the first lessons I was taught: never fall in the vanity of thinking that my thoughts or appreciations over an event or news -in this case the movie- are the undeniable truth; always leave room to the possibility that others might differ, or even that your perceptions might not be shared by everyone or, finally, that they might be simply and completely wrong.
    This review makes the academic epitome for that lesson.
    The later said, I would like to conclude my comment encouraging -rather than discouraging- everyone to watch this movie. I will not say it is a masterpiece -that is for each one to decide on his own- but I will definitely say it has plenty of reasons to be considered an interesting and even inspirational work, although I do consider it to be one of the good movies I have seen. A masterpiece.

  • jjoill | January 1, 2011 9:58 AMReply

    Viewer doesn't care what's the next "surprising" thing is. Pretty boring. Although there were few interesting stories inside the main story. Anyway seems like director/writer wanted to appear wittier than he is.

  • Aaron | January 11, 2012 12:21 AM

    What? Seen too many DC Comics movies lately, haven't you?