In Bob Byington's anti-romantic comedy Somebody Up There Likes Me, characters get married, divorced, and die. There's no climax, just a bunch of people waiting around. The title, borrowed from a 1956 film starring Paul Newman, seems arbitrary. The plot hinges on a mystical suitcase, which seems cool at first, but ultimately underscores the meaninglessness of life. Somebody is nihilistic, misanthropic, and weirdly relaxing. I've never seen anything like it.
Discerning cineastes may think of "polish" and "accessibility"� as bad things; in Byington's case, they are not. The Austin-based director's two previous films, RSO (Registered Sex Offender) (2008) and Harmony and Me (2009), suffered from flippancy and poor casting. Somebody is also flippant, and many of the same faces are here, but the director's touch is getting lighter. Meanwhile, he's working with a larger budget. The film has way too many logos in it, presumably out of promotional consideration; sometimes it feels like one of those maps distributed by the small-town chambers of commerce with creatively scaled cartoon pictures of whatever restaurants and shops paid to be included, but if product placement means higher production values, that's fine. It pays off, thanks to the clean cinematography of Sean Price Williams and the understated score by Vampire Weekend's Chris Baio. Integrated with Baio's music are animated interludes by Bob Sabiston, which smooth the way for the story's chronological ellipses – 35 years condensed into 76 minutes.
On the upside, all the right actors are in the right places: Poulson, who had minor roles in Byington's two previous films, plays Max, a drowsy ne'er-do-well, a neo-Dorian Gray whose access to the contents of the aforementioned suitcase keeps him perennially young. Max's stoic attitude behooves him; just look at what happens to his wife, Lyla (Weixler), a once-sweet girl whose optimistic expectations set her up for snowballing bitterness in middle age. Even-keeled Max gets along better with Sal (Offerman), a philosophical waiter at the steakhouse where Max works. Offerman is a scene-stealer, and we can expect to see him in a lot more movies from now on. It doesn't matter what he's doing – sucking helium, misusing words, driving a golf cart, standing still – he kills. Byington has found some funny women as well. In addition to Weixler, there's Mullally (who's married to Offerman in real life) as the world's worst therapist. One of the best exchanges in the film is a session between the two.
Byington has got me thinking about the art of absurdist comedy. You can't just steamroll the audience with kookiness like Quentin Dupieux does in Wrong. You have to tread lightly, with an acute awareness of when to ease off the pedal. Weddings and funerals work equally well as settings to magnify inappropriate behavior, whether it's Bob Schneider singing the Cars' "Double Life" at Max and Lyla's reception, or Max seducing the nanny (Hunt) at the memorial for Lyla's dad. It's OK to kill off characters at random, as long as the device is used to flesh out other personalities. And whatever the MacGuffin, it should have some kind of significance. Max's behavior rings true: What would we do with his youth-giving talisman? Probably the same thing we do with all our extra stuff. Stick it in a closet for a few years, and eventually throw it away.
For an interview with Bob Byington, see "Somebody Up There Likes Bob Byington", April 5.