Film Review: Somebody Up There Likes Me

Winningly offbeat indie comedy.

A bittersweet comedy about love and marriage, random fate and eternal youth, writer-director Bob Byington’s fifth feature is his most conventional work to date, but still highly original and delightfully unorthodox. Confusingly, Somebody Up There Likes Me shares its title with a classic 1956 boxing drama starring Paul Newman, but the similarities end there. The plot takes in terminal illness, premature death, marital collapse, failed fathers and disconnected sons, yet the characters are all charming eccentrics and the overall mood is relentlessly sunny. It is an appealingly odd mix, like a Todd Solondz film directed by Wes Anderson.

Nebraska-born but Texas-based, Byington is a longtime face on the Austin movie scene with loose links to the low-budget “mumblecore” movement. But the crisply scripted, quasi-literary feel of Somebody Up There Likes Me has a flavor all its own. Positive word of mouth and good theatrical prospects look likely. Besides, all those Wes Anderson fans must crave a drop of something a little darker and weirder once in a while.

One of Byington’s regular company of players, Keith Poulson is elevated to leading-man status in the role of Max Youngman, a self-absorbed slacker who drifts and quips his way through an apparently charmed life. Bouncing back from recent divorce and family tragedy, Max lands a waiter job at an upmarket steakhouse, where he proposes marriage almost instantly to his ditsy co-worker Lyla (Jess Weixler). The wedding looms, with Max’s fellow waiter and mentor Sal (Nick Offerman) as best man.

In the first of several fast-forward jumps, the story then skips ahead five years. Max and Lyla become rich on a family windfall, inviting Sal to share their grand house. Lyla gives birth to a baby boy, while Max begins an affair with his nanny Clarissa (Stephanie Hunt). Infidelity, therapy, divorce and poverty follow. The story jumps again and again, into the near future. Various characters get old, sicken and die. But Max stays freakishly young, apparently protected by a briefcase left by his late father, whose mysterious contents emit light when opened—a skewed homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film-noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, via Alex Cox’s Repo Man and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

But merely trying to describe this busy plot does a disservice to Somebody Up There Likes Me. The film’s pleasures lie more in all the droll one-liners, surreal logical leaps and stoner-friendly philosophical nuggets that Byington manages to squeeze into its brisk 75 minutes. The film’s chief dispenser of comic wisdom is co-producer and co-star Offerman, whose brawny presence and deadpan manner recall John Goodman in his prime. Brief rotoscope animated sequences by Bob Sabiston, best known for his work on Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, lend an extra dash of dreamy magical realism. The jaunty, brassy, lightheaded score by Chris Baio of indie rockers Vampire Weekend is another winning touch.

All this mannered cuteness and oddly affectless anguish risk straying into inconsequential whimsy in places, but Byington keeps a tight control via the film’s breezy pace and sharp-witted script. Despite knowingly blank performances and a heavily ironic tone, the story ultimately accumulates emotional gravity, ending with a sardonic refection on the seasonal cycle of life that is worthy of a Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller novel. Tragedy is comedy. Comedy is tragedy. So it goes.
The Hollywood Reporter