'Mr. Nobody,' the 2009 film from Belgian writer-director Jaco Van Dormael is one of the few instances where theoretical physics and the idea of string theory nets as much textual screen time as something far more compatible with conventional filmmaking like, say, romance, heartbreak, and the ever popular coming of age story.
The film begins with old footage of a pigeon using a block to reach some food, which then segues into an experiment where the same bird is given food when it flaps its wings, leading into a discussion of what's known as Pigeon Superstition – the idea being the bird theoretically believes food will become available whenever it flaps its wings. Whether or not this is intended to lend credence to the film's quasi-science-y narrative is questionable, but the idea behind the experiment, or, rather, its subject – the notion that all actions have far reaching influence and ramifications, even if those performing the actions are not present to witness them – is central to the plot. This leads to another theoretical (and over referenced) principal that's known as the Butterfly Effect (thanks, Jeff Goldblum!), which loosely comes into play here as well.
That's a lot of set up for a film that actually requires a lot of set up, since 'Mr. Nobody' is, at its heart, an ambitious art-meets-science fantasy that reads a little like 'Cloud Atlas' at times, but comes away with a far soupier product.
Jared Leto headlines as Nemo Nobody, the focal point of several different universes resulting from the choices he's forced to make from childhood on to his deathbed at the age of 118 and the last mortal in a world where humankind has overcome the aging process. Over the course of the film, Nemo is a 9-year-old child (Thomas Byrne) growing up in England with his parents, played by Rhys Ifans and Natasha Little. After his parents split, Nemo is a teenager (Toby Regbo) growing up in Canada with his mother and falling in love with his stepsister Anna (Juno Temple), but he's also a teenager back in England, living a quiet life with his father, who is now confined to a wheelchair. As the film progresses, and Nemo is forced to make more choices, his lives begin to splinter off in countless ways, with his choices manifesting themselves in lives filled with brief moments of happiness, but more often, prolonged agony and heartache.
One particular thread has Nemo wandering the streets of New York City, searching endlessly for the now grown Anna (Diane Kruger) after a chance encounter left him with her number on a piece of paper that was quickly washed away by the rain. In another, he's a suburban father with two kids and a manic-depressive wife Elise (Sarah Polley). And in yet another still, he's married to Jean (Linh Dan Pham), the third girl from Nemo's youth he dreamed he would one day marry. There is even a wildly fantastical version that has Nemo waking from stasis aboard a doomed spaceship orbiting Mars.
None of Nemo Nobody's potential lives manifest as anything particularly happy or perfect – at least for him – so perhaps that is why the film hints that, upon his death, the oft-repeated phrase "you cannot go back" will suddenly become so important. With these many possibilities stemming from every choice Nemo makes or doesn't make, Jaco Van Dormael has clearly linked his film to the small existential crises felt each time a major decision has to be made in anyone's life. The idea that from each choice an infinite number of universes are spawned is a fantastic one, and the director has certainly made an ambitious effort to detail how such a theory might look, if linked to just one man. But it's as if the possibility of endless possibilities became a web in which the director himself was caught, thereby preventing him from making enough strong, decisive narrative choices.
It's often said that an artist's work is never done; he or she simply has to abandon it at some point and move on to something else. There's something to that here in 'Mr. Nobody,' as if Nemo's endless string of possible outcomes were the textual manifestation of the artist – in this case, the writer – being unable to choose a single path for his character – the surname Nobody being an indication of that – so he simply attempted to choose them all. In a sense, that could be considered the choice that was made, but even coming to rest on such a notion doesn't raise the film above an ambitious but flawed escape or pseudo-intellectual discourse about the nature of choice and the frustrating limitations imposed on the concept of freedom – artistic and otherwise – because of the need to make decisions.
It also doesn't help that, aside from different accents or a mountain of latex, Jared Leto doesn't deliver much in the way of variety when it comes to the different versions of Nemo, who is, already something of a cipher throughout the 155-minute runtime of the film. His younger counterpart, the aforementioned Toby Regbo, however, may have less in terms of different possibilities, but he manages to create two distinct Nemos – one living with his handicapped father, and the other falling madly in love with his stepsister. Most egregious, though, may have been the decision to have Leto play the 118-year-old version of Nemo, instead of casting an older actor. Layers of unconvincing make up further narrow Leto's already unemotive acting style, and the decision to employ a voice that sounds like a Muppet with a head cold only serves to undermine the film's head scratching denouement.
Although it is wildly ambitious and visually sumptuous, 'Mr. Nobody' lacks the kind of focused narrative and compelling character work necessary to make a film like this a success. The movie certainly impresses in terms of scale, but fails to match its ambitions with a real sense of purpose and clarity.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Mr. Nobody' comes from Magnolia Home Entertainment as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. The disc will play several previews, but they can be skipped to go directly to the top menu. You will have the choice of a 155-minute director's cut, or the 139-minute theatrical cut that debuted four years ago Toronto International Film Festival.
'Mr. Nobody' has been given a very nice 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that plays up the various visual flourishes that are so abundant in Van Dormael's film. The image is intensely clear, with bright, vivid colors and copious amounts of fine detail. Early on, there are some slight issues with contrast, in which some of the images look almost hazy, but the issue seems to fade as the film progresses. In fact, later on, when the film takes a wild detour into space, the contrast level is quite high, giving the image of outer space some very robust black levels to bounce around in. The image also manages to handle textural elements quite well, and offers a clear distinction in tone to help differentiate between realities and time periods.
All in all, the image presented here is quite strong, playing up color above all else. Still, there are some great examples of texture and fine detail on display (usually in close-up) that give the picture a nice HD presentation. Some early contrast difficulties aside, this is a good looking image.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is superb. The mix plays up the repetitive use of songs like 'Mister Sandman' and 'Everyday' and 'Where Is My Mind?' by each song a lush presentation that will fill the room with familiar sounds that are certainly evocative of the film's themes. But the mix also handles other aspects quite well, too. Dialogue is given the right of way most often, and almost exclusively comes through the center channel speaker. Meanwhile the front right and left are loaded more towards the aforementioned musical selections and the film's score, as well as certain sound effects. Of course, all of this bleeds through into the rear channels to demonstrate the disc's superb dynamic range and to generate a solid, but not totally immersive atmosphere.
The mix is well balanced, though; it pays particular attention to the needs of the scene handles shifts in prominence with ease. This is a mix that could have used a little more oomph in certain places, but otherwise it's a solid performer.
'Mr. Nobody' is a gorgeous looking film that puts visual excitement and symbolism above a solid narrative and characterization. There are a great deal of interesting and thought provoking elements on display here, but Van Dormael struggles to find a cohesive meaning with them, and seems to simply let it all rest on a conclusion that also works around the idea of completion. Jared Leto may soon be an Academy Award winner, but his performance here – though competent – isn't compelling enough to carry the latter portions of the film's plot. The disc has a very nice picture, great sound and some intriguing extras, so, ultimately, this unique film is worth a look.