Something stops Max from aging in “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” a droll, low-budget comedy that never comments on the fact that its lead character remains roughly 28 for his entire life. Perhaps Austin-based writer-director Bob Byington intends for Max to serve as a cautionary model for man-children everywhere, warning of the dissatisfactions that await those who never grow up, though actor Keith Poulson already looks a decade older than Max’s maturity level, while its callow tone fails to articulate what this stunted hero is missing. After a lap of fest play, the youth-oriented pic will settle into streaming obscurity.
Told in a series of discrete, disconnected scenes that occasionally leap five years forward in time, Max’s life can be summarized by the scowl that pulls Poulson’s face into an expression of permanent dissatisfaction. With his stooped shoulders and slack jaw, Max could be the poster-boy for a generation of disengaged young men who hold somebody else — their parents, partners or possibly society at large — responsible for their own happiness or lack of same.
Those closer to Max’s age at the film’s outset will likely find something in the character to identify with, even it’s just the fact that he makes them laugh. Max has a smart-alecky comeback for nearly every occasion, which keeps the conversation crackling, but serves as a barrier between him and normal human connection. It’s hard to care about others when you’re constantly undermining everything they say.
Early on, Max returns from a trip to find his wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) in bed with another man. He shrugs and moves on, hastily marrying Lyla (Jess Weixler), a waitress at the restaurant where he works. She is passionate about breadsticks, he is passionate about nothing, and so they proceed, hoping it will all work out.
Five years later, the couple has a son, Lyle. Max still works at the steakhouse with best friend Sal (Nick Offerman, wryly hilarious), though he’s soon to inherit a fortune from his surly father-in-law (Marshall Bell). Max seems about as committed to his marriage as he is to his job, all but rolling his eyes during a couples counseling session (featuring a cameo from Megan Mullally as their therapist) and eventually cheating with the first flirty girl (Stephanie Hunt) who crosses his path. As the soundtrack frequently reminds us, he’s a fool for love (the Sandy Rogers song practically serves as Max’s anthem).
With bemusing vignettes stacked one after the other and no clear plot to drive the action, it’s hard to distinguish between a normal scene break and one of the film’s many flash-forwards. Faced with more than three decades of ground to cover, Byington provides few clues to the passage of time, apart from the occasional animated intertitle and a trick by which a series of different actors play Lyle, while the kid’s wardrobe remains constant.
Whatever is keeping Max young is kept in a blue suitcase stowed in the trunk of his car. Every so often, he opens the case and basks in its glow, while those around him age normally — or as well as the pic’s limited makeup effects can disguise the ensemble’s underlying youth.
Byington (“Harmony and Me”) wants this magic device to remain ambiguous, though it’s mostly just unclear, having little impact on Max or the other characters. Consciously or not, the vast majority of auds watch movies expecting to see characters tested by adversity, but a hero like Max — one who defies time and continues to repeat the same mistakes throughout life — betrays the fundamental concept of a personal arc. Nothing seems to faze him. If nonchalance were an Olympic sport, Max would be a gold medalist, and watching “Somebody Up There Likes Me” is about as much fun as being a spectator at that event might sound.