Poker Face

The life cycle of man as deadpan farce

Poker Face

For years, writer/director Bob Byington has been chronicling the subtleties of human behavior. His Registered Sex Offender and Harmony and Me were black comedy takes on the million small dramas that constitute our daily lives, squirm-inducing yet thrilling in their ability to capture reality in all its messiness. With his latest, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Byington extends his reach into the realm of the magical, or at least the whimsical and highly improbable. The movie follows Max (played by frequent collaborator Keith Poulson), a deadpan yet charming cynic, through the ups and downs of several relationships over the course of 35 years. The film is divided into five-year segments, each a minor-key celebration of life and all its failures. At the center of the story lies a mysterious briefcase which may or may not possess magical powers.

Somebody Up There Likes Me is a remarkably original vision of life as deadpan farce, a world populated by characters who are both too knowing and too lost to seem at home anywhere. Unlike most mumblecore – a movement which prides itself on a certain scruffy realism and into which Byington's films are sometimes lumped, maybe because he has an affection for stories about romantically challenged, mop-topped hipsters – Somebody isn't afraid to stray into the realm of the absurd and stay there. Generational cinema tropes like whimsy, quirkiness, irony, and sarcasm are played out to their extremes, out past the world of actuality into near-Platonic idealizations. Each scene is a blow struck for stylized dialogue and just-so camera placement.

With its animated sequences, comic sound effects, and a plot structure that plays with time and memory and stretches the limits of reality, Somebody feels like a great stylistic leap forward for Byington. If it is, the director doesn't make much out of it.

"In the sense that we had a pro [director of photography], a bigger crew, a very experienced producer, and a reasonable budget, yes," it was a leap forward, Byington says.

The biggest difference between Somebody and Bying-ton's earlier movies may be in how striking it looks. While Harmony and Me and RSO were modest, handheld affairs, Somebody bursts with light and color by comparison.

"We wanted this film to look great, and we hired a DP from New York, Sean Price Williams," Byington says. "He has something of a reputation on the indie circuit; he's kind of a rock star cinematographer. So he lent something to the process of shooting the film that I'd never had before. He was also very flexible and easy to communicate with, which is slightly rare for camera people, in my experience."

Coming off the remarkable success of Harmony and Me, Byington wrote the script for Somebody in the spring and summer of 2010, but it was only one of several projects he says were simmering in the late fall of 2010 when Somebody started to gain momentum. Those (still-simmering) projects include a movie starring Byington regulars Nick Offerman and Pat Healy and Judd Apatow repertory company member Martin Starr, and another starring TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe.

Of his creative process, Byington says, "I don't have much insight into how the scripts for my movies manage to get written, but it only seems to happen when I lose access to the Internet.

Somebody Up There Likes Me

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