This review was originally published on March 26, 2012…
Film festivals used to be lousy with movies like “Somebody Up There Likes Me” – Movies that were dry, quirky (without being cutesy) and borderline inaccessible. You got head-scratchers that kept you talking with your friends for hours after the screening. You got films so divisive that sometimes those conversations would turn into full-on fights. Maybe it’s because even indie filmmakers have become concerned with marketability, but they really don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Director Bob Byington doesn’t much care about marketability. What he does care about is unclear. In fact, there is a lot of ambiguity in “Somebody Up There Likes Me”. But that’s also what makes it fun.
The story follows an ineffectual, impassive, Jack White-looking fellow named Max who has just failed to save his marriage by cutting corners in the flower department (he stole a telltale bouquet from a roadside grave). This is probably a metaphor for what went wrong in their relationship. He has the decency to return the flowers, but this, we soon learn, is a rare moment of morality for the character. It’s not that he’s a bad person, exactly. He’s just not a good person.
Max has absolutely zero aspirations. He lives from one moment to the next, succumbing to whims and random bits of advice. He courts and subsequently weds his quirky, carb-obsessed co-worker, Lyla, because a stranger tells him to just get that second marriage over with. Don’t feel bad for her, though. She’s just as unaffected as Max. Everyone is, including Max and Lyla’s lusty nanny, Lyla’s terminally ill father, and Max’s constant companion – a dimwitted sage named Sal (Nick Offerman). The film progresses in five-year intervals, marked by ethereal animations, which allude to a mysterious, light-exuding blue suitcase that Max keeps in his closet. It’s never revealed, but whatever is in that case makes the person who opens it very happy. In fact, the only time any character truly smiles is when they take a gander at its contents. The rest of the time, the characters make huge life decisions and handle love, loss, birth, death, fortune and misfortune with the same zombie-like detachment.
I should also mention that “Somebody Up There Likes Me” is billed as a comedy. There are jokes! Many of these jokes are even funny, but, if you become too preoccupied with trying to figure out the character motivations, you might forget to laugh. Then again, I don’t think any of these characters have any motivations. These are people who expect absolutely nothing out of life and want nothing, unless it’s convenient. And yet, life keeps happening to them.
The acting is so stylized that it’s difficult to praise the performances. Their uniform nonchalant tone evokes the deliberate direction of a Wes Anderson film. Delightfully, Nick Offerman is such a charismatic presence, that he can’t help but inject just a hint of impish Ron Swansonism.
Wes Anderson parallels run deeper than the hipster soundtrack (by Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio) and deadpan delivery. Max becomes a profoundly neglectful father, at times channeling Royal Tenenbaum. We don’t get to see how this affects his son, Lyle, until the boy is a man. But Lyle might be the only character in the film capable of emotions.
Though everyone around Max develops signs of aging (a gray streak here, a wrinkle there), his own appearance never changes. Perhaps this is indicative of a lack of personal growth or maybe there’s a Dorian Gray thing at play with that suitcase. Either way, its symbolism can’t be ignored. Byington certainly has something to say here, but he leaves it up to the audience to figure out what that is.
If you see this movie, you’ll have to tell me how you interpret it, but here’s what I think: The film posits that life is arbitrary. “Somebody Up There Likes Me” is an ironic title which alludes to the popular notion that there is a God and he has a plan (or is that Cylons?). Whether or not there is a God in Byington’s universe, he most certainly does not have a plan. It doesn’t matter how you choose to live your life, be it by working your a*s off or hardly working. Good things and bad things will come to you in equal measure. But the things that happen to you aren’t what matter. Somebody up there might be doling out your ups and downs, but what’s most important is that somebody down here likes you. Otherwise, your life is a waste.