Time travel mix-ups have provided ample fodder for a range of comedic material, from "Back to the Future" to "Safety Not Guaranteed. The Australian romcom "The Infinite Man" is part of a rare breed that uses the constant pileup of future and past events to enhance its humor and intelligence at once. Writer-director Hugh Sullivan's first feature is initially a lightweight comic fantasy that gradually increases its sophistication with a network of dense events littered throughout a tangled chronology, resulting in a funny and oddly involving representation of one relationship's ups and downs.
Despite its complex timeline, "The Infinite Man" is an impressively minimalist storytelling achievement: The entire narrative revolves around the experiences of three characters. At its center, neurotic young scientist Dean (Josh McConville) attempts to rejuvenate his relationship with Lana (Hannah Marshall) by taking her to an abandoned seaside resort for their anniversary. Once there, however, he's foiled by the arrival of Lana's ex-lover Terry (Alex Dimitriades), with whom she appears to flee the scene. Bummed, Dean spends the next year engaged in lonely laboratory experiments, eventually creating a time machine that he uses to return to the past and attempt to perfect their weekend together. Instead, he instigates a seemingly endless loop of events that build up to progressively absurd heights — with time, there are multiples of the three characters running around the complex, trading places, tricking each other and utterly baffled as to whether anything might solve their conundrum.
The cast is small but multiplies quickly: While one Dean spars with another over the affections of their numerous versions of their girlfriend, Terry arbitrarily shows up to battle with any number of Deans as well as himself. Sullivan's wonderfully clever screenplay dangles small encounters throughout the purposefully cluttered story like puzzle pieces, returning to various fragments as he moves along to explain how each component fits together. While it maintains a relatively basic, farcical tone, "The Infinite Man" grows steadily involving as Dean concocts plans to set the timeline on its proper trajectory. Among one of his weirdest tactics, he convinces Lana to wear an ear piece and recite specific lines of dialogue to another version of himself in order to keep the order of events intact; it's only later that we discover that the other Dean has already experienced this maneuver and chosen to manipulate the proceedings from his own perspective.
Confused yet? That's part of the fun. Similar to "Timecrimes," Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo's 2007 farce in which a man inadvertently stumbles into a time travel loop of his own, the head-spinningly advanced plot matters less than the entertainment value of getting swept up in its knots. But "The Infinite Man" does "Timecrimes" one better by imbuing the arrangement with symbolic value, as we bear witness to the undulating temperaments that define a relationship's fragmented nature. At one point, Dean experiences a breakup and reconciliation at the same time, playing the scene with a unique combination of silliness and emotional authenticity.
Sullivan maintains that breezy approach throughout the picture, with a lively score by Zoë Barry and Jed Palmer echoing the wacky/poignant divide as Dean hustles around the contained environment, his eyes constantly wide in fear of the surreal time rift on his hands. While the movie's blithe attitude sometimes comes at the expense of taking its character's situation seriously, that hardly negates its entertainment value, which eloquently shakes up an otherwise tired formula. On a basic level, "The Infinite Man" is just the story of a klutzy romantic train wreck awkwardly striving to correct the path of his tattered relationship, but even if we've seen that story countless times, Sullivan astutely rearranges its conventions. When a character refers to Dean's situation as "just one big revision," it's hard not to imagine that the line applies to the project itself.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? An under-the-radar entry at the SXSW Film Festival, the movie should enjoy a solid life at genre festivals and could garner healthy returns in ancillary markets, if not much of a commercial release — although decent word of mouth could turn it into a sleeper hit.
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