Mr. Nobody -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

This big-budget English-language co-production shows that Europeans can compete in the sci-fi realm where high production values are king.

Venice Film Festival -- Competition

VENICE, Italy -- What is the nature of time? Not the best subject for a popular feature film, one might think, until "Mr. Nobody" came along to prove the contrary. Like a thinking man's "Benjamin Button," it addresses very complex concepts, like the infinite number of possibilities that human life presents, in an entertaining way, following the hero Nemo Nobody, age 0 to 118, through the different lives he would have led had he made different choices. This big-budget English-language co-production shows that Europeans can compete in the sci-fi realm where high production values are king. Given the film's versatile appeal as love story and fantasy, but relatively minor star power (Jared Leto, Sarah Polley and Diane Kruger are the top names), its commercial outlook looks strong but not overwhelming.

Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael, whose concise repertoire includes "The Eighth Day" and "Toto le heros," describes at least three distinct futures for the 9-year-old Nemo. It starts when the boy is forced to make an impossible choice: to stay in England with his Dad (Rhys Ifans) or jump on a train and go to the U.S. with his mother (Natasha Little). This wrenching moment is rendered full of anguish by young Thomas Byrne, the first of the film's Nemo incarnations.

If he stays with his father, he ends up with the blonde Elise (Clare Stone as a teenager, Polley as an adult) and lives through a painful marriage to a wife afflicted with chronic depression. Out of love for her, he travels to Mars to scatter her ashes in a delightfully futuristic scene aboard a space wheel, where the passengers are put into hibernation until they reach their destination.
Had he leapt on the train to follow his mother, on the other hand, he would have fallen deeply in love with Anna (teen Juno Temple, adult Diane Kruger) in an intensely romantic story. Their underage love ends in tragically losing each other for years, until they find each other again as young adults.

A third, apparently negative possibility has Nemo choose to become rich instead of happy, and he pairs with Jeanne (Linh-Dan Pham) in a loveless marriage that ends in senseless tragedy.

A little too often, we are projected into the distant future, where Nemo is about to die of old age at 118. As the last mortal alive in a world that has learned to renew its cells, he's a curiosity item monitored by a tattooed psychiatrist (Allan Corduner) and interviewed by nervous young journo Daniel Mays. Jared Leto, who plays Nemo as an adult, is rendered unrecognizable by make-up, and indeed he can hardly recognize his own life or remember which of the many roads possible he chose to travel. On some level he seems to have lived all the possibilities; to have died all the deaths and still be alive. An intriguing ending leaves the question open, suggesting that every life is worth living.

Leto's wide-open blue eyes guide the viewer through the labyrinth of time and choices. He takes the torch, as it were, from Toby Regbo, who plays his 15-year-old self with shaggy appeal. Kruger offers a remarkably intense portrait of undying love; also memorable is Juno Temple as herself at 15, wisely aware that her feelings for Nemo will last forever. Polley's role is less romantic than chilling, and her interpretation of the manic-depressive Elise painfully uncompromising.

Van Dormael's intriguing script is more than matched in his flamboyant direction of this 2-hour-plus tale, heroically edited by Matyas Veress and Susan Shipton into a fluid, generally understandable narrative. While Nemo wonders why time only goes in one direction, and ponders the possibility of smoke returning into a cigarette, the filmmakers have no trouble turning the hands of time backwards and forwards. But this is never done for cheap thrills; everything comes back to the idea that human life is precious in all its complications, and every choice we make has its consequences.

Production designer Sylvie Olive was prized at Venice for her extraordinary fantasy sets, color-coordinated in each life through the masterful cinematography of Christophe Beaucarne.

Production companies: Pan-Europeene, Integral Film, Lagofilm, Christal Films Prods., Toto & Co.
Cast: Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Linh-Dan Pham, Rhys Ifans, Natasha Little, Toby Regbo, Juno Temple, Clare Stone, Thomas Byrne, Audrey Giacomini, Laura Brumagne, Allan Corduner, Daniel Mays
Director: Jaco Van Dormael
Screenwriter: Jaco Van Dormael
Executive producers: Nathalie Gastaldo, Mark Gill, Daniel Marquet, Jean-Yves Asselin
Producers: Philippe Godeau, Alfred Hurmer, Marco Mehlitz, Christian Larouche, Jaco Van Dormael
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Production designer: Sylvie Olive
Music: Pierre Van Dormael
Costumes: Ulla Gothe
Editors: Matyas Veress, Susan Shipton
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No MPAA rating, 137 minutes