“Before he was unable to make a choice because he didn’t know what would happen. Now that he knows what will happen, he is unable to make a choice.”–Nemo Nobody
“So what did you think of it? Did you like it?” It’s the first question we ask each other after watching a movie. It’s a simple question, and I usually have little trouble providing a simple answer: “It was awesome!,” “It sucked,” or “it was okay” being the norm. Moving beyond this basic thumbs up/thumbs down rubric is another matter, but the initial gut response is always there. Except when it isn’t, at which point the best course of action is a deflection: “Ummm, did you?”
Movies designed to appeal primarily to the intellect are the problem here, and perhaps that’s why fewer of them are made. My “chicken soup for the soul” movie list, for example, is full of movies that appeal to one’s emotions, and the response to them is always clear. One might instantly love A Room with a View, as I do, or dismiss it offhand as a chick flick, but one isn’t likely to be muddled about it. Same for those designed to trigger basic stress responses in our bodies. One is probably either going to love movies like Alien or Fast and Furious or dismiss them as juvenile, but the response, even when it falls in the middle “it was okay” territory, isn’t difficult to pin down. But what about movies like Holy Motors or Mulholland Drive? Because the appeal lies elsewhere, they are more difficult to resolve, and I would imagine more difficult to make too as it’s pretty easy in this territory to come off as just pretentious or weird (much like my blog entries in that regard).
Mr. Nobody, a 2009 film written and directed by Jaco Van Dormael, is of this variety. To give movies like these their due, we have to frame the questions a little differently; it’s less about whether they are good or bad in a conventional sense as whether they are thought-provoking and interesting. “The most important thing to understand for a listener new to ‘modern’ art music—the thing I’m always trying to impress upon those patient souls who let me drag them to such concerts—,” says J. Bryan Lowder, in a Slate piece about minimalist composer Phillip Glass, “is the need to shift their paradigm of judgment from beautiful/ugly to interesting/boring.”
Mr. Nobody is interesting and thought-provoking. I can say this definitively for me because Wanda and I talked about it for a good twenty minutes afterward, something we generally don’t do after an Avengers movie (which isn’t to say we might not still enjoy the Avengers movie more). Rather than summarize the movie, I’ll simply provide the summary from Wikipedia as it is particularly good: “The film tells the life story of Nemo Nobody, a 118-year-old man who is the last mortal on Earth after the human race has achieved quasi-immortality. Nemo, memory fading, refers to his three main loves and to his parents’ divorce and subsequent hardships endured at three critical junctions in his life: at age nine, fifteen, and thirty-four. Alternate life paths branching out from each of those critical junctions are examined. The speculative narrative often changes course with the flick of a different possible decision at each of those ages.”
Who hasn’t wondered how his or her life might have turned out differently had a different decision been made? Or simply been astonished by the extraordinary and bizarre happenstance of existence itself? Mr. Nobody, the character, is in this regard an ironic reversal. Being nobody, he is also everybody. The movie doesn’t stop there though, and if it has a weakness, it’s that it tries to do a little too much. All possibilities/outcomes are equally valid; that’s a primary thematic element. The movie makes this point explicitly, but it’s still a little frustrating, a point the journalist, who functions as a stand in for the audience, makes in our place: “Everything you say is contradictory. You can’t have been in one place and another at the same time. Of all those lives, which one is the right one?” As many possibilities as there are for Mr. Nobody the character there are for Mr. Nobody the movie. Is it a film representation of Frost’s The Road not Taken? Is it a more sophisticated version of The Butterfly Effect? Is it a reflection on the creative powers of the artist? Or, as Forrest Gump would say, is it “all of these things happening at the same time.”
Mr. Nobody has a 64% critic and 76% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. As for those other 34%, obviously, they just didn’t get it. I’m joking of course. As I mentioned, I was ambivalent about it myself at movie’s end, and so was Wanda. Having thought about it a bit more now I would definitely recommend it as a movie to make you go “hummm” and perhaps even join your hands together at the fingertips.