Review: Somebody Up There Likes Me
A veteran of the tight-knit Austin film scene, Bob Byington specializes in intimate, often tricky portraits of irredeemable pariahs and slackers. Over the course of 70-80 minutes of deadpan humor, he cajoles us into having some affection for them, until by the end we find in their petty existence something essential about life. Since his return to low-budget filmmaking after a fallow decade, the writer-director (and actor) has made vérité-style profiles of an unrepentant convicted perv (RSO: Registered Sex Offender, 08) and a sad-sack troubadour who’ll chew your ear off over his last break-up (Harmony and Me, 09).
Byington’s latest feature, Somebody Up There Likes Me, abandons rough, rambling pseudo-documentary trappings for a more polished look and tighter structure. It veers into the realm of parable, with fated encounters and fantastic elements such as a magical suitcase. Despite the spruced-up production values and leaps down the rabbit hole, the film remains true to the Byington spirit—snapshots of life bursting with disappointment and desperation, dished up tongue in cheek, laced with offbeat wit, and offered in a spirit of fun.
The man-child might be the scourge of 21st-century society (and cinema), but he’s the main attraction here. Aptly named Max Youngman (Keith Poulson), a saucy steakhouse waiter on the outskirts of Everycity, USA, is the puckish Peter Pan type at the center of the film’s sweetly ironic, loosely strung-together vignettes about life and love. Somebody follows Max over 35 years, during which he fails to mature either emotionally or physically, or find any real fulfillment as life passes by.
Byington’s anti-heroes are social misfits without ambition, but they’re refreshingly unapologetic guilt-free charmers, and Max is no exception. He’s a selfish cad with a boyish face and perfect flop of hair, who seems to float by on good looks and insouciance alone. Poulson, in his first leading role, acquits himself well, ably deploying an arsenal of sarcastic facial expressions. He may lack heart, but he’s got cheek.
Max falls for co-worker Lyla (Jess Weixler), a shy tongue-tied girl who takes everything literally. (“Are you good in bed?” Nick asks early in their wooing. “I get about eight hours,” is her guileless reply.) It’s a limited role, as female parts tend to be in Byington’s films, but Weixler teasingly draws us in as an adorable naïf with a breadstick fixation and daddy issues. It’s a match that seems fated by heaven, or at least by the dictates of narrative, even down to the way Max chafes under the watchful eye of Lyla’s father (Marshall Bell), a dyspeptic dirty cop. Married, with everything money can buy, they soon settle into passionless domesticity, neglected child and all. It’s not long before Max’s eyes wander, and they don’t have to stray far to meet the willing gaze of the fetching babysitter, Clarissa (Stephanie Hunt).
Joining Max on his ramble through life is his sole friend, Sal (Nick Offerman), whose matter-of-fact rudeness is matched only by his unerringly obtuse delivery. Offerman, a Byington regular from before his star turn as Ron Swanson on Parks & Recreation, is an outsize presence here. With finely groomed beard, smoldering cigarettes, and calm bespectacled intensity, he ups the voltage on this light comedy and infuses it with some dirty gravitas.
The familiar Byington visual touches include jump cuts and voyeuristic peeks from around corners. But this is a much prettier film than his earlier works, cast in vivid colors and crisp images. Bright light suffuses the characters with auras and gives the picture a sun-kissed gleam. Animated interludes come courtesy of Bob Sabiston, using the rotoscoping process featured in Austin mainstay Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.
Even a life lived more responsibly than Max's is pockmarked by emotional turbulence and the impossibility of establishing lasting connections with others. Byington offers the whole mess up, but with a light and tender touch. In RSO, a character named Bob Byington raises the possibility that “Life is a big fucking nasty joke.” It’s not the most original sentiment, and some might be turned off by his new film’s occasional heavy-handedness. But we might as well laugh, even if it’s only on the inside.