Happy Accidents (2000)

by Gordon Geise


Parallel Universes

The last time some guy picked me up in the park, made me fall in love with him, and then told me he was from the future—I gotta admit, I ran scared. So I can’t guarantee a wholly objective opinion on the subject of Happy Accidents. Then again, said dude was an Anglophilic scat-fetishist Pentecostal junkie as well… and you know what they say: You can’t fix the world.

But that’s what Ruby Weaver (Marisa Tomei) seems intent on doing. In and out of relationships with the deeply troubled, the Jungian, the restless, in therapy to give priority to the care of self (“I am willing to find a balance between my own needs and my concern for others”), Ruby seems unable to be anything but a caregiver, a “fixer.” She and her chums sit around their Manhattan digs dissing their newly discarded boyfriends, ceremoniously depositing their photographs into a shoebox marked “The Ex-Files.” Along comes Sam Deed (as in, “a friend in-”), just in from Dubuque. They meet in the park—Ruby reading, Sam sketching—and have a pleasant conversation.

cover art

Happy Accidents

Director: Brad Anderson
Cast: Marisa Tomei, Vincent D'Onofrio, Nadia Dajani, Holland Taylor, Tovah Feldshuh

(IFC Films)

Sam seems refreshingly normal at first glance. He’s also warm, personable, sensitive, prone to philosophic rhapsody, more than a little out of touch with popular culture, and terrified of small dogs. He pitches woo; Ruby catches woo-hoo! It’s not until Ruby and Sam have fallen madly in love and he moves in with her that he confesses how very different “back home in Dubuque” really is: Sam’s a time traveler, ya see, from the year 2470 C.E. (but he does keep saying A.D.—as if the Jesus fad could last that long, please).

Once he has ‘fessed up, Sam is full of stories: how, for example, global warming really did screw the world up (Dubuque is now on the Atlantic Coast). How sex for procreation is verboten, but his parents (the 24th-and-a-half-century version of hippies) are anachronists who live outside mainstream society, fighting for the right to fuck. How back-travelers recognize each other (3-letter first name, four-letter surname—what, now, to make of Mae West, let alone Don King?). How science has vanquished the standard sci-fi conundrum of “What happens if you go back in time and kill your grandfather?” So he’s a loon, and Ruby is right back where she started.

Things get even further out of control when Ruby finds reason to doubt she’s Sam’s one-and-only—he’s been obsessively sketching some bimbo named Christy Delancey – and then Sam spills his real agenda: in 2470, he found Ruby in a database of fatal accidents, fell in love with her picture, and came back to save her from, uh, certain death. By which he means, certain death this Friday afternoon. To make matters worse, Sam might not even be around Friday afternoon to protect her (from, as you may recall, certain death) if he fails to combat the “spells” he’s been having: Residual Temporal Drag Syndrome. RTDS is a hazard of back-traveling, he says, to explain why he’s been seeing things temporally backward—coffee unpouring into a carafe, for instance—and he may just end up stuck that way, living life backward. Whatever that means.

If the time-travel scenario sounds vaguely familiar, congratulations! You’re a film geek! Like 12 Monkeys before it, Happy Accidents takes its cue directly from La Jete, the 1962 short film by French directeur Chris (“Magic”) Marker, in which a man travels back in time, bewitched by a woman’s face. Marker’s film (as well you geeks know) tells its story via narration over a series of black and white stills; in a direct homage, writer-director Brad Anderson adopts a similar still montage style at a couple of points in Happy Accidents, precisely as the details of Sam’s time travel and its causation are given. What’s more, holy cow: it works.

Elsewhere, notably in the initial exposition, Anderson utilizes jump cuts extensively and effectively to tell us of Ruby’s and Sam’s lightning romance, and to fill in the necessary back story of Ruby’s relationship troubles. Serious film geeks will disagree with me here: They will say it’s been done before, and better. They will say the camera work is amateurish. They will say using sped-up footage of Ruby and Sam dancing in her living room is an embarrassment for all involved. Fuck ‘em. The exposition is fast-paced and fun. The trouble is, the pacing is not sustained. In fact, it pretty much ceases to exist about 20 minutes into the flick.

Still, Happy Accidents is a thoroughly pleasant movie. Tomei and D’Onofrio imbue their roles with the requisite warmth and fragility, and at times (a few, anyway) their chemistry is downright transporting. I ended up caring about both these characters so much so that I didn’t realize until a day later how bored I rightly should have been by the sheer number of emotional flip-flops Ruby goes through (on two themes, no less: Is he faithful? and Is he crazy?). Or how annoyed I should have been that she bounces from conviction (That two-timing bastard!) to conviction (Awww! He my woogums) without once traversing the mucky soil of uncertainty. This is a trick requiring rather more credulity than time travel.

But let’s get down to the mean and dirty. Happy Accidents is either a sci-fi love story, or a love story in which one of the lovers is crazy. The trouble is, by the end of the movie, we know which one it is. And there’s no reason we should have to. True, things fall neatly into place at the story’s climax, but not so neatly that they couldn’t still be mere coincidence, i.e., the time-travel thing may still be delusional. But with one swell foop shortly before that certain death is scheduled to come calling, the intrigue and uncertainty just go away. Clunk! Movie’s over. Credits! Hell, come Friday p.m. our heroine could be dogmeat anyway, right?

Well, yes and no. Also disappointing is the muddled way Anderson attempts to smooth over the aforementioned time-traveling paradoxes (which similarly plagued 12 Monkeys, as well as the Terminator flicks). To wit, Sam invokes parallel universes, leaving hanging the obvious questions, In which universe are you actually going to modify what actually happens? and, If you’re so in love with her, why don’t you just go shag her in a universe where she doesn’t die on Friday? Even supposing that Sam can access such a universe only by interfering with Ruby’s death, if universes bifurcate routinely and infinitely a la Borges, there are still infinite universes in which Ruby dies, including an infinite number in which Sam’s interference was present but ineffectual. So, finally, what’s the point? Oh, yes: a Happy Ending. And there we are, sitting on a jetty (excuse me, une jetee), blissfully in love and miraculously alive.

My quibbling is all—fittingly—retrospective. In fact, I didn’t notice some of the above nits until some friends picked them for me. I return, at last, to the fact that I really enjoyed the movie while it played. That Happy Accidents works, by and large, is either a significant coup on Anderson’s part or the result of a happy—oh, hell, let’s just say serendipity, shall we?

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