Movies about chance and fate, such as Forrest Gump and Amelie, have to be careful that their musings don’t trip over into preciousness. Pondering the eternal what-ifs of existence—“What if I hadn’t done that one thing that sent my life into a completely different direction?”—can lead to touchy-feely observations about our interconnectedness that can feel mawkish in a film whereas, in real life, such mysteries can seem disconcerting and even frightening. So much of our lives is out of our control: Shouldn’t that fact terrify us?
What makes Mr. Nobody work so well is that Belgian writer-director Jaco Van Dormael balances both the awe and terror of that eternal mystery. This existential sci-fi drama stars Jared Leto as Nemo Nobody. Waking up one morning, Nemo discovers he’s an elderly man living in the late 21st century—and that he’s the last mortal left alive in an advanced civilization that views him as a fascinating oddity. Nemo has no memory of how he got so old—last he remembers, he was born in 1975 and living his life in the early 21st century.
The film is structured around old Nemo’s stories to a journalist who’s writing a story on him. We see much of Nemo’s younger life, but the problem is that we’re not sure which version of his life is correct. According to the old man, he either grew up in the U.K. and fell in love with a woman named Elise (Sarah Polley) or he moved with his mother to Canada and fell in love with a woman named Anna (Diane Kruger). But even those versions have their own divergent narratives: Did Nemo meet Anna as a teen (Juno Temple) and then never reconnect with her in adulthood, or did they find each other again?
This storytelling complexity is not new for Van Dormael, who helped make his name on the world stage with 1991’s Toto the Hero, which also told the story of a man’s life in flashbacks that weren’t always accurate. Fantasy and reality mix just as readily in Mr. Nobody; in one plot strand, Nemo adventures to Mars to be part of a colony, although we assume what we’re seeing is a product of Nemo’s imagination as a boy. But because Van Dormael never shows his hand regarding which version of Nemo’s life is correct or the superior option, Mr. Nobody emerges as an investigation into the different variations of all our lives: the daydreams, the anxious worst-case scenarios, and the futile digressions that went nowhere but maybe could have if events had worked out some other way.
It’s fitting that for a film about the unpredictability of chance, Mr. Nobody has had its own circuitous route to distribution in the United States. The movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2009, but despite a name cast and some pretty impressive effects—its €33m budget was the biggest for a Belgian film—it never secured a proper release in America until now.
But that delay hasn’t diminished the film’s timeliness. If anything, some of Van Dormael’s pondering about the secrets of the cosmos—voiced by Leto in one version of Nemo’s life—could be said to anticipate the searching characters in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Whatever the reasons for Mr. Nobody’s theatrical holdup in the States, it’s gratifying for U.S. audiences to finally see Leto’s performance, his last before taking several years off to focus on his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars. Mr. Nobody opens the same day as Dallas Buyers Club, which represents Leto’s return to acting, and in both films he conveys an openness that suggests such fragility and warmth. In Mr. Nobody, despite the myriad variations of Nemo he’s playing, there’s a consistent damaged quality to the character that binds them together. Leto isn’t trying to essay distinct personalities for each Nemo—they’re really all versions of the same soul.
As Nemo’s love interests, Polley and Kruger are forced somewhat to play types. Elise is a deeply depressed woman, and Polley is unembarrassed to make her pathetic and wounded, a wife and mother who can barely get out of bed. Kruger’s Anna is a more subdued adult version of the feisty teen, Anna (played by Temple), letting the mystery of what exactly changed in this woman stay unresolved. It’s but one unanswered question in Mr. Nobody, which is drunk on the humor, anxiety and sadness that fate can bring into our lives. Eventually, Van Dormael must end his narrative game-playing and come clean about what we’ve been watching, and his resolution is a little too pat to be fully satisfying. But like a lot of lives, Mr. Nobody is more about the incidents along the way than it is about any major revelations discovered at the end.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Jaco Van Dormael
Writer: Jaco Van Dormael
Starring: Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Linh-Dan Pham, Rhys Ifans, Natasha Little, Toby Regbo, Juno Temple
Release Date: Nov. 1, 2013