Billed as “a deadpan fable about time sneaking up on and swerving right around us” by the SXSW programmers, Bob Byington’s Somebody Up There Likes Me is boring twaddle masquerading as something more exiciting and more important, thanks to a barely hidden high concept conceit that frequently make the production just look sloppy and inattentive. The film and its often blank-faced lead, Keith Poulson, are without any of the charm and cheekiness of Byington’s previous films, namely the lovely and funny Harmony and Me.
Poulson’s Max Youngman is a typical shiftless twentysomething – a waiter, he doesn’t appear to have many life or professional goals and, personally speaking, he’s not doing so hot either. His ex-wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) doesn’t want to get back together, which she proves handily by having sex with another dude within minutes of Max leaving her house. Max’s only friend is his waiter co-worker Sal (Nick Offerman) who, even later in the film after over thirty years of friendship and a number of job changes, Max still calls “the waiter.” A slightly spur-of-the-moment date with co-worker Lyla (Jess Weixler) appears to signal a positive change in Max’s life, and thus the film, but while Somebody Up There Likes Me tracks decades in Max’s life and innumerable changes, there’s little actual evolution to be found.
The film presents itself vignette-style, with fluffy cloud animation marking the passage of five year increments. While Max’s love life and career changes frequently, not much else does – literally. Max doesn’t age, and while Sal and Lyla appear to grow a bit older over time, they too hardly change. Byington opens his film with a flash-forward and an apparently magical suitcase that both account for and explain away what’s going on – but that device is both the most interesting and most underused element of the entire film. Why Byington instead put his focus on unlovable loser Max instead of the entire plot-driving device or his skilled supporting characters (namely Offerman and Weixler) is one of those grating cinematic mysteries – it’s likely that Byington thought he was doing something profound, but the whole enterprise is boring and even a bit malicious, and it becomes increasingly difficult to find much emotional merit buried in between some funny lines and situations.
At one point, Weixler asks her therapist, played with typically hiliarous restraint by Megan Mullally, if their interaction is just a dream, to which Mullally responds, “does it seem like a dream?” The world and film that Byington have built initially feel a bit like a dream, with everything just a touch off, before it collapses into boredom and meaninglessness. Not quite a nightmare, but certainly not anything you want to see play in the dark.
The Upside: Nick Offerman continues to turn his own hilarious and pleasing brand of sarcasm and self-loathing; Jess Weixler briefly shines; some quick and clever conversations.
The Downside:An unengaging lead, a muddled story, and what appears to be a complete disinterest in giving its audience any sort of entry point in the narrative makes a film that’s barely feature-length feel four times its length.