If there’s anything more hugely subjective than comedy, it’s anti-comedy. No doubt there’s an appreciative audience, however small and self-selected, for Somebody Up There Likes Me, a film distinguished entirely by its stubborn refusal to engage viewers in any way whatsoever. For most people, however, Bob Byington’s fifth feature—his best-known previous film was 2009’s equally gormless Harmony And Me—will play like the worst kind of performance art, in which contempt for conventional entertainment functions like a badge of integrity. You have to work pretty damn hard to make Nick Offerman this unfunny.
At least Offerman has more than one facial expression. The same can’t be said for Keith Poulson, playing the movie’s ostensible protagonist, a steakhouse waiter of indeterminate age who’s recovering from the failure of his first marriage. Poulson’s age can’t be determined because the movie covers 35 years in his life but he never gets any older, thanks to a mysterious Pulp Fiction-style suitcase that emanates beatific light whenever he peeps inside. Nor does he ever manifest the slightest interest in anything or anybody, even though he remarries a breadstick-obsessed waitress (Jess Weixler), has a long-term affair with their nanny (Stephanie Hunt), and founds a hugely successful pizza and ice-cream chain with his best pal (Offerman). He just drifts through life, responding to decades of minor turmoil with the same vaguely bored sneer.
If Byington intends the magic-suitcase conceit as a satirical comment on people who refuse to grow up, he sabotages himself by making every other character in the movie just as stagnantly one-dimensional as Poulson’s. And while his deadpan dialogue and penchant for quick vignettes has led some to compare him to Wes Anderson, there’s a crucial, overwhelming difference: Anderson’s arch style invariably hides an aching emotional core, whereas there’s no indication here that Byington’s characters, or Byington himself, gives even half a shit about anything at all. Somebody Up There Likes Me seems smugly pleased with its own detachment, a quality underlined by the cutesy-ironic score contributed by Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio. (Hope you like tubas.) Every once in a long while—which sounds odd, given that the film runs only an hour and a quarter, but that’s how it feels—there’s a moderately funny bit, usually riffing on language in some way, as when “avuncular” gets transformed first into “uncular,” then “unclear.” Mostly, though, Byington just rides the same sour, hipper-than-thou tone until he finally, barely reaches feature length.