Somebody Up There Likes Me: Locarno Review
Texas-based auteur wittily subverts the rom-com formula.
LOCARNO - A bittersweet comedy about love and marriage, random fate and eternal youth, the writer-director Bob Byington’s fifth feature is his most conventional work to date, but still highly original and delightfully unorthodox. Confusingly, it shares a title with a classic 1956 boxing drama starring Paul Newman, but the similarities end there. The plot takes in terminal illness, premature death, marital collapse, failed fathers and disconnected sons, yet the characters are all charming eccentrics and the overall mood is relentlessly sunny. It is an appealingly odd mix, like a Todd Solondz film directed by Wes Anderson.
Nebraska-born but Texas-based, Byington is a longtime face on the Austin movie scene with loose links to the low-budget “mumblecore” movement. But the crisply scripted, quasi-literary feel of Somebody Up There Likes Me has a flavor all its own. After making its low-key debut in SXSW in March, the film was picked up at Tribeca last month for U.S. release in early 2013. Judging by its well-received international premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland last week, positive word-of-mouth and good theatrical prospects look likely. Besides, all those Wes Anderson fans must crave a drop of something a little darker and weirder once in a while.
One of Byington’s regular repertoire of players, Keith Poulson is elevated to leading-man status in the role of Max Youngman, a self-absorbed slacker who drifts and quips his way through an apparently charmed life. Bouncing back from recent divorce and family tragedy, Max lands a waiting job at an upmarket steak house, where he proposes marriage almost instantly to his ditsy co-worker Lyla (Jess Weixler). The wedding looms, with Max’s fellow waiter and mentor Sal (Nick Offerman) as best man.
In the first of several fast-forward jumps, the story then skips ahead five years. Max and Lyla become rich on a family windfall, inviting Sal to share their grand house. Lyla gives birth to a baby boy, while Max begins an affair with his nanny Clarissa (Stephanie Hunt). Infidelity, therapy, divorce and poverty follow. The story jumps again and again, into the near future. Various characters get old, sicken and die. But Max stays freakishly young, apparently protected by a briefcase left by his late father, whose mysterious contents emit light when opened – a skewed homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film-noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, via Alex Cox’s Repo Manand Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
But merely trying to describe this busy plot does a disservice to Somebody Up There Likes Me. The film’s pleasures lie more in all the droll one-liners, surreal logical leaps and stoner-friendly philosophical nuggets that Byington manages to squeeze into its brisk 75 minutes. The film’s chief dispenser of comic wisdom is co-producer and co-star Offerman, whose brawny presence and deadpan manner recall John Goodman in his prime. Brief rotoscope animated sequences by Bob Sabiston, best known for his work on Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, lend an extra dash of dreamy magical realism. The jaunty, brassy, light-headed score by Chris Baio of indie-rockers Vampire Weekend is another winning touch.
All this mannered cuteness and oddly affectless anguish risks straying into inconsequential whimsy in places, but Byington keeps a tight control via the film’s breezy pace and sharp-witted script. Despite knowingly blank performances and a heavily ironic tone, the story ultimately accumulates emotional gravity, ending with a sardonic refection on the seasonal cycle of life that is worthy of a Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller novel. Tragedy is comedy. Comedy is tragedy. So it goes.
Venue: Locarno Film Festival screening, August 7
Production companies: Faliro House, M-13 Productions
Cast: Keith Poulson, Jess Weixler, Nick Offerman, Stephanie Hunt, Marshall Bell
Director: Bob Byington
Producer: Stuart Bohart, Hans Graffunder, Christos Konstantakopoulos, Nick Offerman
Writer: Bob Byington
Cinematography: Sean Price Williams
Editor: Frank V. Ross
Music: Chris Baio
Sales company: Faliro House
Rating TBC, 75 minutes