At the time of his 118th birthday, Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto in Benjamin Button makeup) relates his memories to a journalist (Daniel Mays). It’s 2092, and Nemo is the last mortal in a sexless future where “stem cell-compatible pigs” have made it possible for humans to regenerate indefinitely. Naturally, he’s the subject of much curiosity, though confusion prevents him from painting a clear picture of the past. Nemo narrates a voyage through several permutations of his life, following alternate paths. He chooses to grow up with each of his divorcing parents (Natasha Little and Rhys Ifans); has three separate and mutually canceling lifelong romances (Juno Temple grows into Diane Kruger; Clare Stone becomes Sarah Polley; Audrey Giacomini becomes Linh Dam Pham); and experiences various brushes with death. As if the Cloud Atlas-level juggling act weren’t enough, Belgian writer-director Jaco Van Dormael throws in a hypnosis conceit and, courtesy of Nemo’s sometime work as a writer, fiction within the fiction. In one iteration, Nemo appears as a TV scientist who lectures on string theory and entropy. The character’s name alludes to both Jules Verne and The Odyssey, but Mr. Nobody’s expansive literary ambitions turn out to have a powerful ordering principle: sentimentality.
Premiered in 2009, Van Dormael’s sci-fi movie has already played throughout Europe, where it’s apparently developed a following. Intellectually, the movie seems to hedge its bets, torn between the nihilistic proposition that what we choose doesn’t matter and the more movie-friendly implication that different paths might lead to different kinds of happiness. The repeated demonstrations of the butterfly effect can be exasperating, as when a homeless woman’s death provides the impetus for Nemo to reunite with the love of his life, or when an unemployed man boils an egg in Brazil and creates the condensation that causes the rainstorm that smudges a handwritten phone number. Still, it’s no small feat to wring poignancy out of a scenario that plays like an elaborate probability exercise. It’s also remarkable that Van Dormael keeps everything clear: Even at its most absurd, the movie has a sinuous glide, proceeding through lyrical crosscuts and musical and visual rhymes. (The repeated uses of “Mr. Sandman” may be a Back To The Future homage, among many other homages.) As philosophy, Mr. Nobody seems sillier than it is profound. But in a parallel reality, more movies would have this degree of insane ambition.