There's a quote on the back of Somebody Up There Likes Me that compares the movie to Todd Solondz and Wes Anderson. It's unfortunate that it caught my eye before I started the film, because it's a comparison that is impossible to shake, and not in a good way. Director / writer Bob Byington does appear to be attempting to mimic the rhythms of Anderson or Solondz, taking weighty subjects and bringing them into a heightened reality, hoping to undercut them with oddball humor. Unfortunately, the film plays out more like someone who doesn't understand what either director's work is about, trading in observation for non-sequitur gags that fail to clarify the characters or story.
Max (Keith Poulson) is in a perpetual state of arrested development. Max drifts along in his go-nowhere job as a waiter at a semi-classy restaurant, where he and his friend Sal (Nick Offerman) muse about where Max screwed up with his first wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) while Max pursues a new girl, Lyla (Jess Weixler). Byington charts Max's confusion over the course of many years, which involve affairs, divorce, business, success, and children, all with his pal Sal by his side to try and offer the occasional bit of insight or advice.
The film's core problem is shared by the screenplay and Poulson's performance. Although Poulson is probably just playing it the way Byington directs him to, Max's deadpan, emotionless personality makes him an extremely unlikable character. He is introduced in scenes with his mouth agape in a blank-faced daze, displays attitude toward the people who like him and want to help him, and frequently becomes frustrated at situations he himself has created, repeatedly and repeatedly avoiding chances to gain a sense of self-awareness. This wouldn't necessarily be bad in and of itself, but based on the film's gags, it's clear that viewer is meant to identify with Max, despite his total lack of sensitivity, tact, or maturity. In the world of Somebody Up There Likes Me, everything is a cosmic joke and nothing really matters, so why shouldn't Max be blessed with a little insight or enlightenment?
Worse, the conflict in Somebody Up There Likes Me is pretty muted. Max is certainly lost, but his goals never come into clearer focus than a vague question about the meaning of his life and what it is he's meant to do with it. Is he happy? If not, why not? Max doesn't know, and neither do we, watching as he ping-pongs from one job or relationship to another. In the second of the film's "chapters," despite a big house and a seemingly happy family, he stares longingly at his kid's sexy young babysitter, Clarissa (Stephanie Hunt) until he can no longer control himself. Before he knows it, he's back at his old job, living in a much smaller house, still looking at the horizon, without any real character development to show for it. To mask the wheel-spinning, Byington throws in comic scenes of Max dealing with oddball couples at the restaurant, or Sal arguing with the first customer at the pizza and ice cream food cart they open. Some of it is mildly amusing, but the comedy doesn't say anything about these people, it's just an additional layer on top of the film's minimal plot.
Directorially, the film is also grasping at straws. Animation is integrated into the live-action movie for no obvious reason and to no great effect, mainly appearing for transitions. It's also used to give a vague hint at the contents of a mysterious briefcase that Max carts around, occasionally glancing inside at unidentified contents that glow and appear to calm his nerves. The film also lazily (and somewhat confusingly) wraps around, starting with a scene set in the future, then jumping back to the beginning before making its way back to the final scene. The fact that the scene doesn't make any more sense or contain any more meaning on the second go-through is probably more than enough indication that Somebody Up There Likes Me falls short of its introspective goals.
Eye-catching colors adorn New Video's artwork for Somebody Up There Likes Me: bold pinks, yellows, and blues make the cartoon artwork stand out despite underwhelming design. Still, panels of cartoons are better than panels of pictures of the film's stars, ripped right out of the movie. The disc comes in a cardboard slipcover with identical artwork, and there is a flyer for Tribeca Film inside the eco-friendly case.
The Video and Audio
A 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation leaves quite a bit to be desired. Maybe it's the low-budget nature of the film, but this is an extremely soft picture with weak contrast, miminmal detail, and a blown-out look in many scenes that is hard to pin down as intentional or unintentional. It's particularly frustrating because, for the most part, it's a step or two away from looking fine, but the persistent lack of definition holds the transfer back. Segments involving animation reveal some compression haloes and some dark scenes, in addition to looking extra mushy, also reveal some minor artifacting.
Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is better than the picture, although like most independent comedies, this is a dialogue-heavy movie and the only real opportunity for surround activity comes from the use of poppy indie rock spread throughout the film, which are extremely bold and energetic. A few scenes exhibit a naturalistic ambience, but mostly this track just gets the job done without fanfare or flaws. No subtitles or captions are included.
Well, according to the packaging, an audio commentary by director / writer Bob Byington and producer / actor Nick Offerman is supposed to be included on this disc, but the track that cued up for me was for a movie called Resolution, so I can't really comment on that. Instead, until NewVideo fixes their error, you'll have to make do with a Q&A (27:16) with the duo, moderated by actor Jason Schwartzman. This is sort of a rambling, low-key chat with a little bit of info on how the project came to be and Offerman's experience producing the movie.
The rest of the disc is rounded out by promo material. The first is a straightforward interview (3:00) with Nick Offerman. Heavy on clips and not particularly informative, but Offerman's comments feel honest, so that's something. There is also a funny promo (4:23) for the movie, or possibly for Offerman's woodshop, or maybe for weed, starring Offerman, Mullally, Hunt, plus Offerman's "Parks and Rec" co-stars Adam Scott, and Amy Poehler, and also Alison Brie, just for good measure. This is followed by interviews (2:13) with Brie and Scott, neither of whom are in the film.
Trailers for The Comedy, Supporting Characters, and War Witch play before the main menu.
Even at a mere 77 minutes, this one's a bit of a slog, failing to gain any sympathy (or empathy) for its protagonist or make its oddball touches connect. The extras package is OK (assuming the correct commentary is any good), but the PQ also underwhelms. Skip it.
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