Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael covers a daunting amount of territory in his existential epic, Mr. Nobody: alternate timelines, the power of choice, the butterfly effect, the Big Crunch, even immortality and reincarnation emerge to an extent. Told from the perspective of an old man, Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), who's recalling his life -- or lives -- in the final days of his existence, he paints a vivid, multihued portrait of how these ideas and circumstances impact the very fabric of possibility, filling nearly two and a half hours with prolific imagery and diverse human drama that branches into a complex network of thoughts. As mesmerizing as the film can be while following and interpreting its narrative strands, there's also a frantic, perplexing quality to this web of would-be realities Van Dormael sets in motion, where inventive filmmaking both helps and hinders the film as it proposes a question -- "Who's Nemo Nobody?" -- that it calculatedly avoids answering by jumping through temporal hoops.
A bizarre presentation of the year 2092 sets the stage for the old man's telling: in an future where he's the last mortal alive due to biological breakthroughs, where everyone has a pet pig and trips to the moon are liberally advertised, doctors try to push through the 118-year-old's misguided thoughts about only being 34 by coaxing memories from his subconscious. As media attention builds around Nemo's death and a fledgling journalist (Daniel Mays) finds his way into the old man's room for an interview, we're introduced to the many abstractions of what Nemo Nobody's life may have been, built around three potential mates -- Anna (Diane Kruger), Elise (Sarah Polley), or Jean (Linh Dan Pham) -- and discovering which of his identities actually encapsulates this final mortal person. From there, Mr. Nobody illustrates how Nemo's life parses in different directions due to the decisions he's made: whom he chooses for his parents, whether he runs towards his mother (Natasha Little) or father (Rhys Ifans) when they divorce after a tragedy, and how he handles the initial rejections and missed dialogue opportunities with two of his possible wives.
With one variation of Nemo intermittently "narrating" the science and mystery of the universe through a fourth-wall-breaking educational television program, Jaco Van Dormael ambitiously fleshes out many of these possible timelines, some which abruptly end in terrible consequences and others that extend until Nemo Nobody has turned 34, either with a wife and kids or lamenting the tragedies that prevented it form happening. The film's focus on the nature of choice and the effects of either seemingly insignificant or momentous deviations -- the weather, a single sentence, the decision between mother and father -- build upon a theoretical foundation that explores the universe's chaotic grasp on cause and effect, as if life were a pinball machine impacted by even the most minuscule missteps in paddling the ball. Mr. Nobody can also be scattered and detached as a result of its many shifts in time, deliberately so since we're only given fleeting opportunities to embrace what's under the surface of most of these versions of Nemo. Impatience and unfulfilled curiosity take hold of the film's convoluted obscurity, becoming a challenge when realities dead-end and rewind for effect.
Jaco Van Dormael knows what he's doing with the byzantine composition and symbolism in Mr. Nobody, though, where much of the story's philosophical intentions come through in recurring motifs and hypnotic images, both digital and practical through Christophe Beaucarne's beautiful cinematography. Considering how often aesthetics provoke the audience across the film, from shattering vases and contrasting bedroom decors to the raw emotion in wide eyes, it's quite a feat for practically none of it to feel pretentious or lack pertinence towards the story Dormael wants to tell; when an abstract scene of bicycles floating around Mars makes its relevance clearly known, you know the director's on to something. Mr. Nobody's visuals can be incredibly effective at provoking emotional responses too, even if their overarching purpose becomes tough to follow as Nemo's realities start to criss-cross. It's an entrancing piece of conceptual art cut from the same cloth as The Fountain and/or Cloud Atlas, even if its purposes appear scattered when studied from the outside looking in (a criticism justly attributed to those films, too, but to a lesser degree).
There's so much soul-crushing drama built around each of Nemo's existences and relationships -- a teary wife and mother anchored by depression, a romance between step-brother and step-sister, earth-shattering car accidents and the coldness born from abundant wealth -- that it grows difficult not to look at Mr. Nobody as a willful detachment from reality and a flight of imagination, intentional or not. Jaco Van Dormael aims for high-concept, melancholy divergences in the universe's grand design instead of authentic aftereffects, and while it's not without embraceable sentiment as Nemo wrestles with life's complexities, one can't help but wonder why each of his existences appear doomed. With that said, several of Nemo's possible scenarios pack enough of a dramatic punch that they resonate anyway, despite some stilted dialogue: Sarah Polley handles the debilitating nature of depression with a deft hand, while Reign's Toby Regbo and the ever-talented Juno Temple shape young, forbidden love into something truly heartbreaking. More importantly, Jared Leto's shifts as the many faces of Nemo, each similarly doting yet melancholy in their own ways, can be subtly engaging despite the arm's length we're kept from his deeper personas.
With the abundant theoretical and dramatic strands at Jaco Van Dormael's fingertips, it's no surprise that Mr. Nobody can't resolve the big picture with its only semi-coherent ending, operating on subtle implications and interpretations around the existence of the old man. While it may be a conceptual stretch to make raindrops, fallen leaves, and overwrought sprints towards departing trains to be the culprits of these events, it does provoke thoughts about the many decisions people make and the many instances of happenstance that alter their trajectory, and how two versions of a person's life exist in those very moments. Where those cerebral contemplations ultimately lead becomes inconsequential: it's not interested in commenting on regret over decisions not made, or the nihilism built around the lack of control over fate. Instead, Van Dormael entrancingly covers the ground he intended to cover about Nobody's existence and ends with a puzzling cackle, still jumping through hoops and offering little concrete grasp on the appropriately-named man of the hour.
Video and Audio:
Mr. Nobody is one of those films built to be absorbed with as much clarity and vividness as possible, where the lyrical imagery's vibrant colors, attention-grabbing textures, playful depth-of-field and abstract camerawork feed directly into the film's impact. Thankfully, Magnolia's 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer of Christophe Beaucarne's photography comes only a few steps short of perfectly doing so, marred only by some harsh rendering of dimensionality and jagged lines within a few visual effects. Aside from those things, there's a plethora of delights to absorb here: shards of vibrantly-colored broken vases and Nemo's argyle clothing express clean lines and punchy colors; dank underwater sequences fluctuate between rich green contrast levels with skill; and the countless moments that focus on lips, eyes, hair, and skin textures during close-ups replicate astounding color response to light and impressive fine detail. From the effervescent younger-Nemo sequences to the stark, sterile scenes in the future, there's hardly a lapse in quality to be found here.
It's easy to get so lost in the visuals of Mr. Nobody that you might even stop paying attention to the immaculate, unforced sound design, an area Magnolia's disc handles with equal potency to its visual transfer with a razor-sharp 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Engaging subtle sound effects, like the flutter of a futuristic camera's wings, the rumble of underwater bubbles, the sound of chalk drawn in a circle and the snap of camera flashes, underscore this disc's balance and focus on atmospheric clarity. Verbal delivery nails down the proper vigor and lightness where it's needed, from the depth of a doctor's hypnotizing voice to Nemo's mother's singing voice, becoming especially engaging during Young Nemo and Young Anna's whispered conversations. There are punchier effects too, though: the crashing of a car into a lake, the firing of a gun round, and the bustle of urban construction-site activity deftly handle their respective vigor. Most of the surround activity belongs to the robust and clear musical accompaniment, yet despite wanting more spread across the channels and a bit more oomph in the lower-frequency area, it's a fantastic treatment.
Making of Mr. Nobody (45:08, 16x9 HD):
Tons of behind-the-scenes shots are accompanied by commentary from Jaco Van Dormael and the entire cast/crew in this fantastic look at the construction of the film, showcasing the bumps along the way in the production and the joys of bringing these scenes to life. While clips from the film appear a bit more frequently than I'd like, they're also often used for illustrative effects that most other making-of pieces don't take advantage of, including split-screen comparisons and interchanging edits from the film to the behind-the-scenes material. Little elements like the selection of leaves and the rolling of cigarettes even get some screentime, while the actors express their fascination with the script and concepts alongside the assembly footage. Well worth the time.
In a surprising move, Magnolia Home Entertainment have also included the Theatrical Cut of Mr. Nobody (2:19:17, 16x9 HD) on the disc as well, still looking really strong at 720p and sounding solid through the legacy 5.1 Dolby Digital track. They've also brought over the Deleted Scenes (6:51, 4x3 Letterbox SD) package from the Canadian Blu-ray, as well as included a new, brief AXS TV: A Look at Mr. Nobody (3:25, 16x9 HD) bit that reuses footage from the above mentioned Making-of mini-doc. Finally, a Theatrical Trailer (1:06, 16x9 HD) rounds of the supplements.
Mr. Nobody should, for all intents and purposes, be a film that I adore: it's driven by concept and philosophy, visually spellbinding, focused on fate and choice, and explores alternate realities through a collage of relationship drama. For a work so up my alley to not resonate as strongly as expected is odd, despite still being awe-struck at its construction, ambition, and gripping performance level. There's simply something missing at its core, though, and it largely has to do with the branching and scattershot nature of Nemo Nobody's many potential existences, where the lack of clarity about who this man really is manifests into an inventive yet emotionally detached exploration of otherwise fascinating territory. Magnolia Home Entertainment's Blu-ray, no matter how one feels about the overall quality of the film, is a monumental success in terms of digital quality and supplements to explore. Still strongly Recommended, especially since this seems like the type of film someone could further warm up to with time and exploration.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site