The quirky new film Somebody Up There Likes Me takes place in a world in which people are numb to their existence and in which time, in the ordinary sense of the word, does not seem to exist at all. We are told that time progresses, and characters live their lives and die, but everyone seems to remain as indifferent to their own existence and oblivious of the outside world by the movie's end as at the beginning. The story's main character, Max (Keith Poulson), is the main offender, perhaps because in the scheme of the film, he does not age at all over the many decades that the story takes place, but remains perpetually youthful. His youth, however, belies the fact that his life is essentially a joyless, largely indifferent progression through the motions. He is not only babyfaced but perhaps the ultimate blank slate. When we first meet Max, we learn that he has already been married and divorced to an equally youthful-looking woman (Kate Lyn Sheil), who, when she married Max, wore yellow because “it wasn't her first rodeo.”
Both of these characters seem far too young to have been married once, yet alone twice, but, as we are to learn by the end of the movie, in this world, every relationship is doomed. Max is a waiter at an upscale steakhouse, and he takes a shine (as far as he as capable of having enthusiasm for anything) to a co-worker, Lyla (Jess Weixler), the daughter of a corrupt cop (Marshall Bell), whom he soon marries. When we first meet her, Lyla is not only fresh faced, but she seems to have a childlike innocence. The movie intermittently flashes forward every so often to “five years later,” but because Max doesn't age, we develop his perspective and not only have no sense of time, but seemingly no sense that anybody has changed in any way. Lyla becomes cold towards Max, who remains the walking yet seemingly anesthetized person he was when they first met. He is chillingly callous towards their young son Lyle (“maybe we should send this one back”, he says in his presence,) but he manages to move on sexually to a fixation with a young woman, Clarissa (Stephanie Bell), whom he first propositions on a street from his car and turns out to be the babysitter that Lyla has hired while they go to dinner while Lyla's father tells them that he has liver cancer. After the father's death, he leaves them a fortune in pilfered money, and Clarissa becomes the family's nanny, five years later, of course. Along for the ride is a Max's best friend, another waiter at the steakhouse, Sal (Nick Offerman, who produced the film as well), who moves into their guest house when they find prosperity. Fortunately for Lyle, he finds a father figure in Sal (though Lyle later identifies him as “avuncular”), and a mother figure in his nanny. When Max comes out to the back yard, where Clarissa and Lyle are seated poolside, he motions her to get away from Lyle, not so he can sit down next to him, but so they can steal away to the poolhouse to have sex. Eventually, Max's marriage to Lyla ends, and his subsequent relationship with Clarissa ends, too, with a twist that is both funny and incredibly depressing.
The movie's writer/director, Bob Byington (is that his real name?), sees perpetual youth not as a blessing of health and good looks, but as a curse of eternal callowness. Relationships are almost congenitally doomed, though he never gives us his characters any reasons why they would feel strongly enough to pursue a relationship in the first place. When Lyla betrays Max with Sal, it hardly seems like a betrayal, yet her increasing coldness towards him manages to be quite a depressing development. The movie is mannered in the style of a Wes Anderson, but the movie whose spirit most hangs over Somebody Up There Likes Me is that of Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman's 2008 directorial debut. In that movie, time moved forward (though in that film we could actually see the progression of
age in the characters,) but the main character, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, was incapable of realizing it, and Kaufman merely skidded over the major events and changes in his protagonist's life. Byington uses the same approach, such as when Max and Sal decide to open a restaurant that serves only pizza and ice cream. The scene when Sal, who's done all of the legwork for the business, finally encounters the business's first customer, only to be frustrated by both the customer's inane questions and Max's hectoring that he adapt appropriate language that indicates that “we” are serving you, is by far the most memorable scene in the movie. However, the business takes off to meteoric hights, five years later (of course!), and we have absolutely no sense how the business took off, and, of course, it had no effect on the characters. It's one thing to condemn people for being callow, but it's another thing together to make the characters nothing.
Given the fact that they had very little to work with, it's hard to expect much from the actors. As Max, Keith Poulson may have been a bit too blank, which is saying something, given the nothingness that is how the character is conceived. His acting was too amateurish to give Max any sort of inner life. Jess Weixler was, at first, a simple yet lovable presence, but over time, she hardened to the same state of numbness; I preferred it when she was just simple. The same thing happened to Stephanie Bell's Clarissa, and Max's first, unnamed ex-wife, who seemed to be bitter when we meet her. Is this Max's effect on people, or is Byington saying that we come to see women (or maybe just people in general) for who they really are over time? I have no way of being sure. The only person who seemed to breathe life into his charater was Offerman, who plays a reliable and loyal friend to Max, even when he's angling to sleep with his wife. In the scene when he and Max conceive of the restaurant and Offerman kisses him on the cheek, it seemed as if he couldn't resist letting us know that he was having fun. The movie is filled with little touches; in fact, one might say that it's composed of nothing but little touches. Byington is a clever writer, perhaps too clever. I enjoyed many of the scenes of banter between the character, and the mixture of visual and verbal gags, but with few exceptions, most of them dissolved in my mind shortly after I saw them, so that even after seeing the movie, I couldn't remember them. There's a good deal of imagination here, and quite a few laughs, but ultimately, when a story is conceived in which the characters are this hollow, it hollowed me out too.