There are filmmakers who could stand to lighten up a little, and others you wish would bulk up, their work being so insubstantial it threatens to blow away in a strong breeze. Austin-based Bob Byington has spent a decade now directing quirky indie comedies whose offbeat concepts and air of slacker snark almost invariably promise more than they end up delivering. Though not as utterly no-there-there as his last feature, “7 Chinese Brothers,” the new “Infinity Baby” (this time scripted by Onur Tukel rather than the director) follows the same pattern of starting out with a few good ideas, then ending before any of them have been properly developed, leaving both the vague satirical gist and wayward narrative dissipating before we’ve gotten a handle on either.
This absurdist doodle has some bright performance moments from name actors, as well as a few other positive attributes. But as another in-joke whose punchline probably wouldn’t be that funny even if there was one, it’s unlikely to expand Byington’s small coterie of admirers.
At first glance, Tukel’s screenplay appears to be a comedy about dating amongst finicky, neurotic millennials as personified by Ben (Kieran Culkin). He seems forever to be having first in-person encounters with prospective new girlfriends — often when the skidmarks are still smoking from his last relationship. Stricken with emotional ADD, he nitpicks at each inexplicably smitten mate’s flaws until the time comes for them to meet his mother Hester (Megan Mullally), whose sour disapproval will provide a convenient excuse for breaking up.
More fantastical are the story aspects revolving around Ben’s job. He works for Uncle Neo (Nick Offerman), CEO of a company charged with finding homes for “Infinity Babies,” the accidental result of stem-cell experimentation. Offered as a sort of lifestyle enhancer, these infants don’t age, don’t cry, and if fed a couple pills a day are so low-maintenance that their diapers only need changing once a week. They offer the pleasures of parenting with little more responsibility than keeping a houseplant.
Ben is wearily in charge of some “sales” representatives, notably the hapless team of Larry (Kevin Corrigan) and Malcolm (Kevin Starr). They’re apparently a private as well as professional duo, even though Malcolm isn’t so sure he’s gay, and taciturn Larry’s true “significant other” appears to be alcohol. When one client refuses to accept delivery of her infant, the two men decide they’ll secretly care for the wee charge themselves, in order to pocket the $20,000 due upon completion of a trial period. This turns out to be a bad idea.
Its near-future setting nicely suggested by canny Austin location choices and Matthias Grunsky’s black-and-white photography (despite some over-reliance on closeups), “Infinity Baby” sports the director’s usual humorous mix of non sequiturs and brattily discordant interpersonal dynamics. Tukel provides at least the building blocks for a useful satire of pervasive immaturity, not just in Ben’s 21st-century Roger Dodger act, but in the conceit of babies designed to provide maximum cuteness who require virtually nothing in return.
Capitalizing on these promising ideas would require a degree of social commentary that director and scenarist alike are reluctant to commit to. They’d rather indulge a shared penchant for cryptic idiosyncrasy that, as in Byington’s prior efforts, will strike a few viewers as hilariously inspired, and everyone else as perpetually almost hitting a bullseye that never quite comes into focus.
There is one truly satisfying setpiece: Ben’s climactic one, in which his latest girlfriend (Trieste Kelly Dunn as giggly, unflappable Alison) and Mullally’s “mom” (who isn’t really what she appears) turn the tables on this manchild, provoking a first-class temper tantrum as they expose all his petty gambits. But it’s a rare moment when narrative, character, and thematic elements are actually developed to the point of payoff.
Otherwise “Infinity Baby” is not just content, but determined to maintain a wise-ass cred via a fragmentary progress that feels like the result of starting production with a half-finished script. Clocking in at just 71 minutes, the feature is nonetheless padded with one repeated scene, a sequence name-tagging characters whose names really don’t turn out to matter, and a limp post-credits blooper. Though there’s some satisfaction in the aforementioned confrontation, and in a coda where at least one character (Starr’s) proves capable of growing up and moving on, the film’s end feels trivially premature, rendering the whole as wispy as an interrupted anecdote.
Byington veterans Corrigan and Offerman notably grasp his sensibility well enough to make something out of the little they’re given to work with. Nearly everyone here, in fact, has some sly or antic improvisational edge that periodically lifts his scenes. Too bad their efforts, and that of the off-camera contributors (including a score by alternative hiphop artist Aesop Rock), can only add up to so much within an ultimately trivial framework.