Jaco Van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody is, through and through, stunningly beautiful to look at. The cinematography is postcard-perfect, the visuals fresh and original whether reflecting a unique future world or dream landscapes or variations on possible lives. It achieves something in its look comparable to Kubrick or Malick, to Blade Runner or The Matrix.
It’s also a nightmare to sit through. Hellish. It’s completely unengaging, and there’s zero momentum to the story, if there’s a story here at all. “Arty” and “pretentious” are beyond this film’s grasp – those descriptors could go towards something like Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, which is similarly slow and confounding but ultimately worthwhile.
We decipher all we need to from Mr. Nobody in the first 30 minutes, and the rest is a beautiful, but deadly, endurance test recommended only for the brave.
“This is not art,” you might say to the artist who has scattered garbage around the gallery floor. “It’s just a mess.”
It’s 2092. 118-year-old Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) is the oldest living man, and in a time where death has been cured he will be the last man to die of natural causes. Cameras literally buzz around him like flies to record his plight. A psychiatrist covered in tattoos and a young journalist interview him to learn more about his life.
And so we delve into his past life. Or lives, rather. Nemo is either a forgetful old man or a poor storyteller, because he strings us along through his various potential lives, which splinter off when he makes an important decision, so we have lives in which he lives with his mom (Natasha Little) or dad (Rhys Ifans), is married to three different women (Diane Kruger, Sarah Polley, Linh Dan Pham), sometimes he dies and sometimes he lives.
It’s an interesting idea. But a nightmare to sit through over two hours of, with no connection between all the different lives, and no driving force to take us through the movie. “But what is the real life?” the journalist asks Nemo towards the end, annoyed. By this time we simply don’t care anymore.
Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael is a former circus clown, best known for his previous two films Toto the Hero (1991) and The Eighth Day (1996). Mr. Nobody was a long time coming, and a lot was obviously put into it; a reported budget of $47 million is an incredible amount for this kind of independently-financed film, and what shows up on the screen looks even more expensive.
I think Mr. Nobody was going for surrealism. But Van Dormael is not a surrealist, at least not on the level of a Luis Buñuel or a David Lynch. Those directors knew that to keep an audience, the illusion of plot must occur; we must think the scenes we’re watching are connected, or the film makes sense, even if they aren’t and it doesn’t.
Van Dormael doesn’t seem to care about this: we watch Scene A, Scene B, and Scene C one after the other, and there is a total disconnect between them – we’re watching a series of possible realities with no pretense of a story to connect them. And thus, no reason to invest in the film as a whole, even though we might like the individual parts.
And yet, as an exercise in intellectual nonsense, I could have gone along with it all. But at the end, things are wrapped up neat and tidy in a way that would make Adaptation‘s Donald Kaufman proud. For a film that’s quite clearly going for artistic appeal, it’s an incredibly bad choice to take the easy Hollywood out.
As much as I like the look of Mr. Nobody, and the idea behind it, and the message it delivers – the importance of the choices we make – I could barely make it through.
You may have better luck, and discover a real treasure here. But proceed with caution.