Like the dimensionally untethered man of its title, Mr. Nobody is stranded between a number of worlds and realities. In some of these realms, writer-director Jaco Van Dormael’s film is a fancifully high-concept weepie that, at its best, occasionally recalls the sweeping and heart-wrenching melodrama of Somewhere in Time and The Fountain. At other times, the film is an inventively, if exhaustively, structured testament to the existence of the multiple dimensional riddles that are implied in string theory (to greatly simplify). There’s no denying Van Dormael’s remarkable breadth of ambition, or even the wealth of superficially dazzling set pieces he manages to offer, but the filmmaker isn’t able to wrangle his various conceits into a single living, breathing, or coherent film. Mr. Nobody often resembles a nearly three-hour clip show that’s been assembled from the spare parts of 20 or so potentially decent movies.
The universal figure under Van Dormael’s consideration is embodied by Nemo (played by Jared Leto as an adult and by the considerably more engaging and expressive Toby Regbo as a teenager). The character apparently has the ability to comprehend several of his potential lives at once, and so we watch as he sometimes lives with his father (Rhys Ifans) after missing the train his departing mother (Natasha Little) eventually takes to Somewhere Elseville, U.S.A. In other lives, Nemo catches that train, and falls into a passionate on-again/off-again lifelong affair with Anna (Juno Temple and, eventually, Diane Kruger), whom he first encounters in a typical movie meet cute only to learn that she will be his new sister-in-law. In other realities, Nemo falls in love with Elise (Clare Stone and Sarah Polley), who’s either killed in an explosion immediately after their wedding, grows into a bed-ridden quasi-delusional, or rebuffs him entirely.
There’s another wife somewhere in this tapestry of misery and dashed opportunity, and there’s also a future realm where Nemo tells a reporter of all of his lives as he awaits his death of natural causes at the ripe age of 118. At times, Nemo is also a host of a science talk show, thus allowing Van Dormael to preach directly to his audience, assuring to them (and, mostly, to himself) that his platitudes pertaining to the infinity of existence and meaning are fully apparent and digestible. But they aren’t: The only truly graspable notion the film can be said to put forth is one of increasingly tedious sci-fi-romantic genre busy-ness, which is cloaked under dozens of shrouds of navel-gazing that are offered up as spiritual and scientific soul-searching. In other words, Mr. Nobody is this year’s Cloud Atlas, and if the former is slightly less absurd, it’s because it spares us the dubious spectacle of watching guest-starring celebs as they attempt to speak in an embarrassing futuristic caveman patois. In literal-minded farragoes like this you take what you can get.