Bob Byington’s Somebody Up There Likes Me suggests a marriage between the archly whimsical style of a Wes Anderson film and the deadpan near-blankness of the acting in a Robert Bresson film. Events both humorous and tragic occur throughout, and some are punctuated by both interpolated animated interludes courtesy of Waking Life animator Bob Sabiston and a cutesy-ironic score from Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio. Even the most devastating of events, however, seems to inspire barely a flicker of emotion in these characters beyond a certain sense of boredom. All of this may drive some viewers up the wall—as if Byington were deliberately trying to withhold emotional engagement, daring us to find the pathos in these situations.
Perhaps pathos, though, isn’t what Byington is shooting for at all. Bresson famously approached his actors more as “models,” directing them to emote as little as possible and thus relying on other cinematic elements—images, dialogue, sound—to pick up the slack in suggesting worlds and inner lives. Byington may be going after a similar kind of minimalism. In fact, “minimalist” is one way to describe the film’s narrative design: a story that, in 76 minutes, spans 30 years in the lives of three main characters, and is structured in sections, each one picking up on the lives of the characters five years after the previous one. Byington also has a knack for suggesting personalities and attitudes through single lines of dialogue and physical gestures. All he needs, for instance, is a moment when Max (Keith Poulson) forgets his son Lyle’s name, combined with his usual detached demeanor, to suggest the depths of his indifference toward his own flesh and blood.
This stylistic game-playing adds up to nothing less than a vision of life as something that constantly moves forward, never stopping for even those who are ill-equipped to deal with the obstacles (unpredictable human desires, professional setbacks, etc.) that it invariably throws one’s way. Like Bresson, Byington contemplates the lives of Max, his wife, Lyla (Jess Weixler), and his best—and, really, only—friend, Sal (Nick Offerman), from a deliberately distanced, omniscient perspective. The only difference is that Byington has more of a sense of humor and a taste for whimsical invention than Bresson ever did.
Byington’s perspective may be above it all, but that doesn’t quite account for the shades of melancholy that pop up unexpectedly in lines of dialogue and in some of the performances. Though the filmmaker focuses mostly on Max and, in a sense, dares to adopt his detached attitude toward the events in his life, Sal is, in many ways, the real heart and soul of Somebody Up There Likes Me. He’s no saint, either, but he’s the one that exudes the most self-awareness and sense of reflection about the lives passing them by. Max, by contrast, exudes no particular passion about anything, so it’s no wonder that he leaves this Earth with basically nothing (Sal and a grown-up Lyle are the only ones at his funeral). What at first seems like a film that thoroughly inhabits Max’s emotional numbness, to sometimes grating degrees, gradually reveals itself to have been sneakily against it all along.