'Mr. Nobody' a Creative, Bewildering Maze Through Realities

Directed by: Jaco Van Dormael; Runtime: 157 minutes
Grade: B

Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael covers a daunting amount of territory in his existential epic, Mr. Nobody: alternate timelines, the power of choice, the butterfly effect, the Big Crunch, even immortality and reincarnation emerge to an extent. Told from the perspective of an old man, Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), who's recalling his life -- or lives -- in the final days of his existence, he paints a vivid, multihued portrait of how these ideas and circumstances impact the very fabric of possibility, filling nearly two and a half hours with prolific imagery and diverse human drama that branches into a complex network of thoughts. As mesmerizing as the film can be while following and interpreting its narrative strands, there's also a frantic, perplexing quality to this web of would-be realities Van Dormael sets in motion, where inventive filmmaking both helps and hinders the film as it proposes a question -- "Who's Nemo Nobody?" -- that it calculatedly avoids answering by jumping through temporal hoops.

A bizarre presentation of the year 2092 sets the stage for the old man's telling: in an future where he's the last mortal alive due to biological breakthroughs, where everyone has a pet pig and trips to the moon are liberally advertised, doctors try to push through the 118-year-old's misguided thoughts about only being 34 by coaxing memories from his subconscious. As media attention builds around Nemo's death and a fledgling journalist (Daniel Mays) finds his way into the old man's room for an interview, we're introduced to the many abstractions of what Nemo Nobody's life may have been, built around three potential mates -- Anna (Diane Kruger), Elise (Sarah Polley), or Jean (Linh Dan Pham) -- and discovering which of his identities actually encapsulates this final mortal person. From there, Mr. Nobody illustrates how Nemo's life parses in different directions due to the decisions he's made: whom he chooses for his parents, whether he runs towards his mother (Natasha Little) or father (Rhys Ifans) when they divorce after a tragedy, and how he handles the initial rejections and missed dialogue opportunities with two of his possible wives.

With one variation of Nemo intermittently "narrating" the science and mystery of the universe through a fourth-wall-breaking educational television program, Jaco Van Dormael ambitiously fleshes out many of these possible timelines, some which abruptly end in terrible consequences and others that extend until Nemo Nobody has turned 34, either with a wife and kids or lamenting the tragedies that prevented it form happening. The film's focus on the nature of choice and the effects of either seemingly insignificant or momentous deviations -- the weather, a single sentence, the decision between mother and father -- build upon a theoretical foundation that explores the universe's chaotic grasp on cause and effect, as if life were a pinball machine impacted by even the most minuscule missteps in paddling the ball. Mr. Nobody can also be scattered and detached as a result of its many shifts in time, deliberately so since we're only given fleeting opportunities to embrace what's under the surface of most of these versions of Nemo. Impatience and unfulfilled curiosity take hold of the film's convoluted obscurity, becoming a challenge when realities dead-end and rewind for effect.

Jaco Van Dormael knows what he's doing with the byzantine composition and symbolism in Mr. Nobody, though, where much of the story's philosophical intentions come through in recurring motifs and hypnotic images, both digital and practical through Christophe Beaucarne's beautiful cinematography. Considering how often aesthetics provoke the audience across the film, from shattering vases and contrasting bedroom decors to the raw emotion in wide eyes, it's quite a feat for practically none of it to feel pretentious or lack pertinence towards the story Dormael wants to tell; when an abstract scene of bicycles floating around Mars makes its relevance clearly known, you know the director's on to something. Mr. Nobody's visuals can be incredibly effective at provoking emotional responses too, even if their overarching purpose becomes tough to follow as Nemo's realities start to criss-cross. It's an entrancing piece of conceptual art cut from the same cloth as The Fountain and/or Cloud Atlas, even if its purposes appear scattered when studied from the outside looking in (a criticism justly attributed to those films, too, but to a lesser degree).

There's so much soul-crushing drama built around each of Nemo's existences and relationships -- a teary wife and mother anchored by depression, a romance between step-brother and step-sister, earth-shattering car accidents and the coldness born from abundant wealth -- that it grows difficult not to look at Mr. Nobody as a willful detachment from reality and a flight of imagination, intentional or not. Jaco Van Dormael aims for high-concept, melancholy divergences in the universe's grand design instead of authentic aftereffects, and while it's not without embraceable sentiment as Nemo wrestles with life's complexities, one can't help but wonder why each of his existences appear doomed. With that said, several of Nemo's possible scenarios pack enough of a dramatic punch that they resonate anyway, despite some stilted dialogue: Sarah Polley handles the debilitating nature of depression with a deft hand, while Reign's Toby Regbo and the ever-talented Juno Temple shape young, forbidden love into something truly heartbreaking. More importantly, Jared Leto's shifts as the many faces of Nemo, each similarly doting yet melancholy in their own ways, can be subtly engaging despite the arm's length we're kept from his deeper personas.

With the abundant theoretical and dramatic strands at Jaco Van Dormael's fingertips, it's no surprise that Mr. Nobody can't resolve the big picture with its only semi-coherent ending, operating on subtle implications and interpretations around the existence of the old man. While it may be a conceptual stretch to make raindrops, fallen leaves, and overwrought sprints towards departing trains to be the culprits of these events, it does provoke thoughts about the many decisions people make and the many instances of happenstance that alter their trajectory, and how two versions of a person's life exist in those very moments. Where those cerebral contemplations ultimately lead becomes inconsequential: it's not interested in commenting on regret over decisions not made, or the nihilism built around the lack of control over fate. Instead, Van Dormael entrancingly covers the ground he intended to cover about Nobody's existence and ends with a puzzling cackle, still jumping through hoops and offering little concrete grasp on the appropriately-named man of the hour.

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