Judge Clark Douglas just doesn't care.
Our review of The Paul Newman Collection, published January 17th, 2007, is also available.
"Marry the next girl you see. It makes no difference."
In a recent interview, Somebody Up There Likes Me director Bob Byington listed Annie Hall and Rushmore as two movies that have had a big influence on him. That's easy to see in the latest movie he's delivered. Like Woody Allen and Wes Anderson, Byington has a distinctive, stylized voice and tends to hide the emotional undercurrents of his work beneath a mountain of quirks. Alas, Allen and Anderson are much better at finding ways to permit their deeper ideas to resonate with the viewer. Byington's film has some interesting ideas at its core, but it's hard to care due to the film's paranoia of anything resembling unaffected sincerity.
The story details 35 years in the life of a guy named Max (Keith Poulson, Harmony and Me). When we first meet Max, he's a thoroughly ordinary fellow who works at a fast food restaurant alongside his best friend Sal (Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation). Over the course of the film, we watch as Max divorces one woman (Kate Lyn Sheil, The Comedy), marries another (Jess Weixler, Teeth), has a kid and conducts an affair with his child's babysitter (Stephanie Hunt, Friday Night Lights). He doesn't seem to have particularly strong feelings about any of this.
Max may very well be the most affectless protagonist I've ever seen, and at times the film seems to follow his lead. The character's complete lack of emotional investment in his life is occasionally a source of humor, but just as frequently a source of frustration. Up to a point, you find him an intriguingly deadpan protagonist, but after a while you want to shake him by the shoulders and tell him to engage with his surroundings. That's partially the point, of course, and the film highlights Max's inability to grow as a person by allowing him to look like a carefree young man while the people around him start getting gray and wrinkled.
Byington is a clever writer, and there are certainly a few moments in which his understated brand of anti-comedy really works quite well. There are a few fun scenes in which Offerman (turning in what is easily the film's best performance) confuses some similar-sounding words (hypothetical/hypocritical/Hippocratic), and quite a few scenes that work as charming little self-contained vignettes. Consider a brief exchange between Max and two patrons at the restaurant where he works.
Max: "What can I get for you guys?"
Perhaps such scenes will be regarded by many as too cutesy for their own good, but I found those moments rather delightful. Unfortunately, the genuinely funny stuff is surrounded by a host of scenes that feel entirely too self-satisfied. The increasingly grating womp-womp-womp score (by Chris Baio of Vampire Weekend) gets harder to shrug aside, Max's eternal unwillingness to change or evolve in any way stops being interesting and the film's absolute refusal to engage in anything that feels conventional (even if convention might turn into something honest now and then) becomes exasperating. Consider a scene in which Max's second wife reveals that she's having an affair. She runs outside completely naked and casually tells him that she's been getting a whole bunch of orgasms from one of his co-workers. He casually asks about size of his co-worker's anatomy, sighs and goes on with life. It certainly doesn't feel typical, but it does feel a rather dishonest. My goodwill toward the film was rather high early on, but I was surprised by how hard the movie worked to undo all of that as it marched along.
Somebody Up There Likes Me has received a solid DVD transfer, though the film isn't particularly interesting from a visual perspective (save for some playful animated interludes that pop up here and there). Detail is strong, blacks are deep and depth is impressive. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track gets the job done, but it's a simple track that mostly focuses on the dialogue and Baio's score. Supplements include a commentary with Byington and Offerman, an additional interview with Offerman, a Q&A with Offerman and Byington and some goofy promos.
Byington has certainly gained a bit of a cult following over the past few years, and Somebody Up There Likes Me is likely distinctive and unique enough to earn itself some passionate defenders. However, the average viewer is likely to find it supremely frustrating. It has its moments, but I'm much closer to the latter camp than the former. Proceed at your own risk.
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