Jaco Van Dormael, best known for his much-loved 1991 film “Toto the Hero,” returns to the big screen in Japan after 14 years with his comeback film, “Mr. Nobody” — but all indications are he should have stayed in retirement. With “Mr. Nobody,” director/screenwriter Van Dormael is indeed treading new ground; his innovation, unfortunately, is making a film that plays like channel surfing.
“Mr. Nobody” has a scrambled narrative of the currently fashionable type — imagine “Inception” crossed with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” — but this is taken to such ridiculous extremes that it feels as if the director shot three separate films, chopped the resulting footage into little pieces and then spliced it all together randomly; you can sense the stories pulsing within this fractured structure, but good luck making sense of them.
We meet Mr. Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto, underneath the old man makeup) on his 118th birthday in the year 2092, but Nemo himself insists he’s still only 34, and tells himself, “I’ve got to wake up!” Bang: Cue a cut into another reality, where he’s much younger and married with kids. Bang: Cut to him again, same age, different haircut, and with another wife, another family. Bang, bang, bang: Cut to the future again, then back to his childhood, then to another childhood. Nemo remembers dying — three different times, including once on a space station travelling to Mars. He remembers different wives (Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Linh-Dan Phan), different versions of the same events, which seem to have occurred simultaneously. Are these the fantasies of a senile old man? Or does he have the ability to move forward and backward in time?
Bigger question: Will you care? “Mr. Nobody” leaps between enough parallel universes to keep the “Sucker Punch” franchise going through a half-dozen sequels, and it’s maybe even less comprehensible than that film, which is no mean feat. Like “Sucker Punch,” “Mr. Nobody” also uses Pixies’ “Where is my Mind” on its soundtrack, which is of course a rip from the climax of “Fight Club,” which was a much, much better use of imagined reality to mess with the viewer.
Actually, Van Dormael rips off one classic movie scene after another: There’s a faked suicide straight out of “Harold and Maude,” and a hypnosis scene with a doctor counting to 10, set to shots of trains, which is clearly aping Lars von Trier’s “Europa.” Others have pointed out a scene — where a pair of young lovers are almost caught in bed by their parents — that’s lifted shot by shot from Julio Medem’s “Lovers of the Arctic Circle.” Having checked it out for myself, I’m inclined to agree, not just about the shot, but Medem’s whole theme of circularity and moving backward and forward in time. Van Dormael would no doubt call this “homage,” but when it’s this rampant, a better word might be “theft.”
Lisa Cholodenko also returns to Japan’s big screen for the first time since 2004 with “The Kids Are All Right,” which seems to merge the lesbian themes of her outstanding debut feature “High Art” with the unconventional parenting explored in “Laurel Canyon.” “The Kids” has been her most successful film so far at the box office, and it’s easy to see why: a pair of warm, funny, engaging performances by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a pair of lesbian moms.
Gay marriage is not presented as an “issue” in Cholodenko’s film; rather, it’s treated as a fait accompli. The plot instead turns on the question of parenting: Nic and Jules (Bening and Moore) are a same-sex couple raising their teenage kids in a California suburb. Nic, a physician, is very much the one who wears the pants in the house, while funky Jules is more of a stay-at-home mom, though trying to start her own landscaping business. The pair have that bad, pop-psych-induced American habit of over-analyzing their relationship and thinking every feeling must be expressed, but for the most part, they’re doing OK.
Meanwhile, their teenage kids, Laser and Joni (Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska), though down with having two moms, can’t resist the urge to learn something about their sperm-donor dad. A few phone calls later, and they have arranged a meeting with Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a Harley-riding organic-restaurant owner who’s tough, hip and sensitive all in the same package.
While initially neutral, he warms to the kids, and they to him, much to the consternation of Nic. The issue is not so much a man encroaching on their household as it is a threat to her parental authority. She finds herself alone on this issue, though, as even Jules finds herself warming — in more ways than one — to Paul’s charms. Nic is furious — but is it really possible to hate a straight guy who likes Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”?
The resulting conflicts are played for laughs mostly, with a little bit of pathos to keep it honest. Cholodenko (who has also directed episodes of “The L Word”) has a light touch, and she skips along the mysteries of attraction, the dynamics within long-term relationships and teen-vs.-parent rebellion. She drops as many plot strands as the ones she waves home, but that doesn’t seem to matter, only adding to the film’s loose, slice-of-life feel.
Cholodenko is generous toward all her characters, but as usual with gay films, it’s the straight white male, Paul, who gets the short straw in the end, despite his transgressions being equally the fault of another of the film’s characters. There’s some pleasure to be had in putting the guy in the “other woman” role, though.