Let’s talk about the briefcase. Writer/director Bob Byington knows full well his appropriation here of the central device from that brash noir classic, Kiss Me Deadly seems derivative, in light of a hundred other uses that all pale in the flame of the original’s melodramatic reveal or the paradigm-altering treatment of briefcase-as-MacGuffin in Pulp Fiction almost two decades ago. His take, however, might be the most optimistic in recent memory.
Instead of the great “whatsit” driving the characters around it to violence, madness, and generally base behavior, its contents end up having a transformative power — perhaps more literally than spiritually. When Keith Poulson’s Max opens the briefcase in a restroom stall not long after the funeral of his father (who left the item to his son), it probably won’t occur to many viewers that the fuzzy glow of its interior emanates from the same effect that causes Max not to age over the 30-something years of the narrative. But it’s a neat capper for a film that doesn’t necessarily need or deserve one, providing some modicum of hope for rejuvenation after 70 minutes of its characters acting like demented children.
Rejuvenation rather than redemption is one among the many confused ideas bouncing about in Byington’s screenplay is the theme of maturity, acting one’s age, captured in the eternally slack, 20-something visage of Max himself. It’s a conceit that initially seems perfect for such a lo-fi picture, until it becomes clear that the limited resources of the production don’t extend to having the supporting cast age realistically around him, and save for the intermittent title cards spelling out just how long has passed between this scene and the last, the constant game of guessing how old a character is meant to be as opposed to whether they just got a new haircut can wear on viewers.
No familiar plot elements are off the table in Byington’s picture, thought the plot ambles along so shiftlessly that taking the screenplay to task for so many well-worn moments of the slice-of-life genre proves difficult. Max first splits up with his wife, then impulsively marries a co-worker at the restaurant where he works with his best friend Sal, played by Nick Offerman. Offerman’s casting will likely draw many viewers who might not have seen the movie otherwise, which actually is too bad, because Somebody Up There Likes Me features his worst work to date, a charmless, rote performance that reveals the actor as a man of unexpectedly narrow range.
Here’s hoping this turns out a fluke, or at least a byproduct of Byington’s beyond-wooden dialogue. So many conversations in the film sound like characters simply talking past each other, thousand-yard lines that drone through each other’s ears and into the audience without delivering any insight. Such a style could work well if there were any nuggets of charm or truth in this picture, belonging to a genre which requires at least one of the two. Neither are to be found here.
Jess Weixler, so consistently funny with tricky material in Teeth, plays Max’s second wife Lyla. Their marriage, a product of Sal’s provocation to Max after his own divorce to simply marry the next woman he meets (“Makes no difference at all,” he says), provides the main thrust of Max’s journey, truncated after he makes the decision to cheat with their babysitter/nurse. This decision, and Sal’s opportunistic move to tell Lyla immediately in order to begin a relationship with her himself, are the stuff of classic relationship dramas, romantic comedies, and coming-of-age stories. But no one has epiphanies in Byington’s world, and the world they inhabit isn’t compelling at all to begin with.
Forget that the film gleams with the blinding glow of amateur backlighting, every character weirdly in shadow even as backgrounds remain totally washed out, or that the animated interludes that glide from one scene to another never converge into a satisfying device to illuminate something further about the characters. Byington’s screenplay depicts people making selfish decisions as though their actions took place in a vacuum, then never bothers to prove them wrong because everyone’s too busy acting deadpan to be affected by things like offenses to dignity, trust, and friendship. The unyielding commitment to a poorly thought-out, unrewarding style drowns whatever kernel of a satisfying movie Byington had in the first place.
Which is why, ultimately, the conclusion’s return to the briefcase leaves the viewer with a little something to linger on. It’s a strange remnant of a device that’s uniquely cinematic, though the punchline it delivers has a student-film gimmick quality. From all the misguided intentions there emerges something of hope here, if not for redemption from bad decisions, then at least for a better movie.
For those curious about the making of this movie, Byington and Cinedigm Entertainment have certainly endeavoured to make the DVD a worthwhile purchase, while also remaining savvy about the real draw of this film. Nick Offerman features in a solo interview as well as a Q&A and commentary alongside Byington.