The real crime here is that practically nobody saw Mr. Nobody when it made its staggered appearance on movie screens beginning in 2009 at the Venice Film Festival. Since then, the movie has been shown in different versions at different limited runs until its home video release in early 2014. That version, the extended director’s cut, has a running time of more than two-and-a-half hours — and it’s worth every minute. Like Cloud Atlas (2012), another magnificent film too few people saw, Mr. Nobody is visually stunning, intellectually challenging and emotionally fulfilling.
The nonlinear plot opens in the year 2092 as the whole world watches in awe as the last remaining mortal, 118-year-old Nemo (Jared Leto), nears death. While a jaded video journalist plies his wares to the worldwide social network, a more sympathetic interviewer plumbs Nemo’s memory for the facts of his long life. Thus begins an odyssey of memory, love and loss, fragmented along three different timelines dictated by a small boy’s impossible choice or, perhaps, something as insignificant as a falling leaf — all leading to an absolutely dazzling conclusion.
When his idyllic childhood comes to an end with the separation of his parents (Natasha Little, Rhys Ifans), Nemo is forced to choose which one with whom he’d rather remain. Like Robert Frost’s “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” Nemo’s desperate decision either way propels him into three possible realities, each focused on a love lost and/or found. In one scenario, he finds happiness with his brunette stepsister Anna (his most fulfilling love); another pairs him with blonde Elise (a tortured but nonetheless committed marriage); and a third with Jean (a comfortable but incomplete relationship).
Each of the storylines is interwoven throughout the narrative like various threads in an ornate tapestry. Time, fantasy and reality overlap, as do those playing the major characters at various ages, particularly as teens and adults — Nemo (Thomas Byrne at age 9, Toby Regbo at 15, Leto from 20-118), Anna (Juno Temple/Diane Kruger), Elise (Clare Stone/Sarah Polley) and Jean (Audrey Giacomini/Linh Dan Pham). Their names are worth noting because Mr. Nobody, despite its unusual narrative, is mostly character-driven, and the performances across the board are riveting, especially Polley’s and Leto’s. In fact, this was Leto’s last film role before his Oscar-winning turn in last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. During the interim, he took time off to devote himself to his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars. (Fittingly, one of the many alternate subplots in Mr. Nobody involves a trip to Mars.)
Written and directed by Belgian filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael, the English-language Mr. Nobody was funded largely by a consortium of European producers. Though it received lavish praise at various festivals and was voted one of the best European films of the year by the American Film Institute, the movie never got wide release and, consequently, an audience. What a shame!
Now you can see the lengthy film at your leisure, time and again. It’s a story that gets even better on subsequent viewings, and one of my own favorite films of the last few years. But fair warning: I also loved Cloud Atlas.