“Mr. Nobody”: A heady sci-fi Choose Your Own Adventure

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“Mr. Nobody” is now available on video-on-demand and for rent on Amazon and iTunes. It opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, November 1. A Madison date has not yet been set. R, 2:28, two and a half stars out of four.

Think of “Mr. Nobody” as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book for grown-ups, but read straight through as if it were any other book, so the reader keeps skipping across alternate storylines. On Page 28, the hero gets eaten by a dragon; on Page 29, he’s alive again, having decided not to go into the dragon’s cave after all.

That gives you some sense of Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael’s trippy sci-fi film, which follows one Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) on all the different paths of his life. The film opens with a bravura sequence in which all of Nobody’s possible deaths play back-to-back, from being shot in the bathtub to crashing his car into a lake.

The film posits that there are several decision points in everyone’s life, some we control, others dictated by fate, that take us into radically different futures. The key one for Nobody was, at 9, choosing whether or not to live with his father (Rhys Ifans) or mother (Natasha Little). Go with his mother, and he ends up as a teenager in a passionate love affair with his stepsister (Juno Temple). Stay with his ailing father, and he marries a local girl Elise, who grows up to become a manic depressive (Sarah Polley).

Or, as a teenager, he doesn’t confess his romantic feelings to Elise, and ends up settling for nice-girl Jean (Linh-Dan Pham) and a life of luxurious boredom. The paths keep diverging, taking Nobody to stranger and stranger outcomes, including being cryogenically preserved on a mission to Mars. We see Nobody grow up to become a bored rich man, a scraggly pool maintenance worker, even a pop-culture scientist who espouses on TV some of the quantum-theory principles guiding the film. (Rather helpful, that last timeline.)

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There’s also, in the far future, a 118-year-old Nobody who is supposedly going to be the last man on Earth to die of natural causes. As near as I could tell, he’s the “real” Nobody, going back over his life and trying the roads not taken to see what might have happened. But that’s a pretty simplistic answer to a complicated and ever-shifting movie, which seems to delight in confusing an audience trying to figure out just what timeline we’re in in a given scene.

The filmmaking of “Mr. Nobody” is as ambitious as its ideas, whipsawing between beautiful images as Nobody falls through one rabbit hole after another. But where the film falls somewhat short is in the emotions. Leto is an appealing enough actor, but he makes Nobody a passive cipher, and it’s hard to care much whether fate sweeps him along to a happy ending or a tragic one.

Leto kind of looks like Jim Carrey’s Eurotrash cousin, so I couldn’t help being reminded of Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” It was every bit the head trip that “Mr. Nobody” was, but at its heart, we cared whether Carrey was able to hang onto his reality or not. Here, the aptly titled Nobody is just a white ball bouncing around the roulette wheel, as likely to land on this number as the next. It’s fun to watch “Mr. Nobody” go round and round, but where it lands doesn’t really matter to us.

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