Reviewed at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival
“I think it’s funny that we all sort of think we’re not gonna die,” notes Sal (Nick Offerman) at the beginning—and the end—of Bob Byington’s sublime new comedy Somebody Up There Likes Me. The occasion is the funeral of his best, and possibly only, friend Max (Keith Poulson); the film is, among other things, the story of their relationship, and that of the woman (Jess Weixler) they both loved, maybe.
The story covers 35 years (in five year increments) over the course of less than 90 minutes, so it moves fast, often grabbing moments rather than full scenes. But that’s the right format for Byington’s frisky comic voice; he’s got a dry sense of visual wit, filling his frames with unexplained jokes and little asides to match the non-sequiturs of this dialogue.
The story begins with the end of Max’s first marriage. A strange, seemingly ageless fellow with a mop of hair and an unassuming approach, Max works in a steakhouse with Sal, a peculiar chain smoker filled with odd bits of advice. Max starts dating again, badly (at the end of a particularly awkward evening, he notes, “I meant to compliment you earlier on your appearance and sense of humor”), before he finally takes notice of fellow server Lyla (Weixler), an oddball with an addiction to the restaurant’s breadsticks.
The scenes of their courtship and early marriage are among the picture’s best, like a romantic comedy written by Steven Wright. Poulson has a nice way with a wry line, and Weixler (very memorable in Teeth a few years back) is utterly beguiling while showing impressive range as the story progresses. And then there is Mr. Offerman, best known as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation, who finds a distinctive, disarming note for this thoroughly strange man.
Byington’s dialogue is occasionally theatrical; some of the duets are reminiscent of early, Sexual Perversity¬-era Mamet, others of Beckett or Pinter (Max: “Can I borrow your hat?” Sal: “You know I don’t wear hats”). The scenes unfold as quick little absurdist sketches, spiced up with weird touches here and there—a son who always appears in the same outfit, animated interstitials, a suitcase carrying some sort of lovely magic.
What it all actually adds up to is up for debate, and that’s certainly not one worth engaging here; a few of the film’s stranger devices require a leap of faith on the viewer’s part, and those leaps—along with the film’s cockeyed style and oddball tendencies—will presumably alienate a wide audience, or even one of Swanson devotees. More daring viewers, however, will likely adore it; this one did. It’s an honest-to-God original, and while the descriptor “quirky” has been cheapened and corrupted and denigrated by half-assed marketers and poseur would-be artists, it’s about the only word that seems appropriate to summarize the weird world glimpsed in Somebody Up There Likes Me. What a refreshing, enjoyable treat this movie is.