This film screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
It’s always interesting to think about the lenses through which we view films and, by extension, the rest of the world. Multiple readings of a single film are possible thanks to critical tendencies to prize one type of view or aesthetic over another, combined with timing, personal experience, and a myriad of other factors that make films play differently to different people at different moments. This is how it’s possible for two critics to wildly disagree about the same movie, or to both praise (or pan) a film for seemingly opposed reasons. This is, basically, at the root of every conversation about movies you will ever have.
One thing I always come back to is what could most easily be described as “emotional reality.” The emotional reality of a film, or a given scene or sequence within that film, deals with the degree to which the characters are acting in a way that feels tethered to common moods, values, and our collective understanding of the world around us. All films exist in a kind of heightened world, but the outlandishness of the story will always work if the script comes back to a tangible emotional reality. I like to cite Die Hard in these instances. On one level, it’s a film about a man who physically bludgeons a sizable number of European terrorists before jumping off a building that he himself has partially blown up. His only protection during this is a tank top and some rugged slacks. From a sheer could-this-happen-to-me perspective, the film is ludicrous. Yet it’s one of the best action movies of the past 50 years because the script always comes back to the emotional reality of one man trying to get back to his wife. The most resonant scene in the film sees our hero bleeding, crying, and making what he thinks is his last radio call to the outside world, begging a friend he’s never met to pass on his love for the wife he’d pushed away. The movie just works.
Emotional reality was on my mind a lot as I watched Somebody Up There Likes Me, a hollow, bitter, caustic, erratic, and generally dull film about a self-obsessed man who spends his entire life living for himself and never does a single thing that can be connected with any semblance of humanity as we know it. He’s not alone, either. He is not a construct meant to make a point. Every person on screen is a robotic producer of non sequiturs and emotionally unreal statements that feel designed to drive the viewer into a state that somehow encompasses boredom and agitation at once. For teaching me that I have the capacity to simultaneously inhabit two seemingly disparate emotional states, I owe writer-director Bob Byington a lifetime of sorrowful gratitude.
Max (Keith Poulson) is a dead-eyed slacker who waits tables at a steakhouse. He’s young, but he’s already divorced, so he sets his eyes on fellow server Lyla (Jess Weixler), despite the warnings against the institution of marriage he gets from waiter/bartender Sal (Nick Offerman). Byington presents these scenes in elliptical bursts, with no clear direction or purpose. It soon becomes clear, though, that he’s got a longer game in mind, even if that long game is a bust. Employing the first of several cuts to “five years later,” Byington presents a married Max and Lyla, shuffling through life with the same jobs and a toddler. Byington’s periodic cuts are, on one level, designed to underscore Max’s inability to change. Poulson doesn’t receive any of the age-related makeup used on the other actors, staying loose while they tighten and stiffen. Yet Max’s static nature is also related to the mysterious blue briefcase he keeps in his house, and which lets out a kind of mystical light whenever he unlocks it to behold the hidden contents. Byington’s attempts to externalize Max’s emotional blockaga via magical realism is a nice idea, and I was eager for the director to have some fun with it, or at least act as if he knew what he wanted to do with it. That did not turn out to be the case.
Throughout the film, Max and Lyla do awful things to each other, but there’s no bedrock upon which Byington can convincingly build a portrait of a relationship in decay, even seriocomically. They both pursue relationships outside their marriage, with Lyla talking lifelessly about her quest for orgasms and Max just kind of dicking around. Characters age but do not change; they act but feel no consequence. Scenes from the film could be moved or removed with no impact on the narrative or its total emotional impact.
This is, basically, comedy in a vacuum, stripped of all actual humor and personality until it becomes something vaguely resembling punch lines being spit out by automatons. Byington seems to prize these characters in an objective way, using them as interchangeable mouthpieces for lines he finds witty or revealing, except that all the dialogue is equally empty and divorced from all character and motivation. They might as well not be saying anything. The film charts a rocky course through Max’s life, but the business success and personal failures mean even less to us than they do to him because no one — not Byington or any of the actors — seem to care about anything. This is filmmaking as an aloof exercise in alienation. Byington is almost clinically unable to connect with anyone or anything in a human way.
As such, Poulson’s performance is pitch-perfect. He’s obnoxious and thoroughly unlikable, but he doesn’t have enough dimension to generate real hate. Weixler takes the brunt of Byington’s emotional retardation, as Lyla becomes increasingly brittle and one-note throughout the years. Even Offerman doesn’t come out unscathed. It’s only his superhuman likability that saves him from being an object of viewer scorn, and even then it’s not by much. The film has some nice technical moments: cinematographer Sean Price Williams brings a nice warm light to the set-ups, playing with pastels and gentle colors throughout. There are also some nicely animated transitions that hint at a film that could have been whimsical, if it only had a heart. Yet we’ll never know. Byington is too closed off to care. A writer-director is the god of the film, and looking down from high, it’s clear that Byington doesn’t like what, or who, he sees.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.