In 2092, the last mortal human being reminisces about his past and the lives he could have lived in “Mr. Nobody,” a film that has a beating heart underneath its messy — though breathtakingly designed — exterior. Belgian helmer Jaco van Dormael’s first English-language film expands on the themes of his debut, “Toto the Hero,” and stars a versatile Jared Leto, though this sprawling filmmaking folly never becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. If the pic is marketed like nobody’s business (and perhaps slightly tweaked), Euro B.O. should be decent, with modest biz more likely Stateside for this cerebral romance.
Pic’s central nexus is a scene in which 9-year-old Brit Nemo Nobody (Thomas Byrne) finds himself at a train station in the early ’80s, as his divorced parents go their separate ways. Mom (Natasha Little) will leave for North America, while Dad (Rhys Ifans) will stay in England. Nemo has to decide whether or not to get on that train, which will dramatically alter the course of his life. (Setup is recycled from the helmer’s 1984 short, “E pericoloso sporgersi.”)
Though it shows him at various stages as a kid, “Mr. Nobody” focuses on Nemo as several possible teens (played by Toby Regbo) and three possible adults (Leto), all of them the result of a possible decision at the train station. A perhaps senile 117-year-old Nemo (Leto again), looking back on his life, isn’t sure which of the lives he actually lived and which he could have lived, a fertile dichotomy that also informed “Toto the Hero.”
The clearest strands involve the adult Nemos, who live in the present. Anna (Diane Kruger, the pic’s weakest link) is the love of Nemo’s life, though fate keeps getting in their way. Elise (Sarah Polley, strong but underused) is his depressed wife, whom he hopelessly loves; and Jeanne (Linh-Dan Pham, adequate) is the spouse Nemo doesn’t love, despite their picture-perfect suburban lives.
The pic clearly reps one of the year’s better-looking Euro productions. The impressive costumes and production design provide a different dominant color for each possible adult life without overdoing it, and ace d.p. Christophe Beaucarne shoots each strand in a slightly different style without sacrificing overall coherence.
But despite these visual aids, the pic is never instantly readable. Showing signs of having been fiddled with extensively, the current edit lacks a clear central focus. Though a lot of it is well written and directed and, quite often, funny or poignant, the individual scenes rarely become part of a larger whole.
The film is less “Sliding Doors” than a series of revolving doors, and auds will be too busy figuring out what’s going on much of the time to contemplate the underlying themes, such as chance, choice and the potential of every person to influence the course of his or her own life. But despite the film’s clever construction and its often whimsical asides, there’s a benign humanism underneath it all that ensures that the pic is finally about emotions, not artifice.
The closest the film comes to having a gravitational center are in the scenes set in 2092. What makes them soar is not the imaginative staging of the future — in clinical white and impressive CGI, courtesy of its $53 million budget — but Leto’s performance. Though he is competent as the adult Nemos, his acting talent really comes into full view in his scenes as the last dying man on Earth (advances in technology have kept everyone else from aging). Despite too much old-age makeup, Leto nevertheless infuses the character with some real raw emotional power.
None of the adult women register that strongly, but Regbo, as the teenage Nemo, and Juno Temple, as the teenage Anna, are impressive, bringing the hormonal battles of adolescence vividly to life.
Film buffs will enjoy spotting countless references to works by masters such as Spielberg, Kubrick, Wilder and Rohmer. Van Dormael isn’t quite there yet.