Mr. Nobody is like Cloud Atlas combined with a Choose Your Own Adventure book. It’s like the former in that it bounces around between time frames in the past, present, and sci-fi future. It’s like the latter in that different things happen to the main character depending on which of several available choices he makes.
Jared Leto plays Nemo, a 118-year-old man who is also the last mortal human being left on Earth. (Sex became obsolete at some point, leaving everyone to be created through artificial means.) The ailing Nemo is visited by a reporter who wants to hear his life story. His most prominent memory is of being a young boy standing in front of a train station, forced to choose which of his divorcing parents he will go with. Old Nemo reflects on the various temporal versions of his younger self. In one scenario, he goes with his remarried mother and, as a teenager, begins a sexual dalliance with his stepsister, Anna (Juno Temple). After being torn apart, they meet again years later, where Anna (now played by Diane Kruger) is reluctant to reignite their relationship, despite Nemo’s abiding love for her. In the other scenario, Nemo goes with his father (Rhys Ifans), who becomes an invalid, and grows up to marry the severely depressed Elise (Sarah Polley). There’s also a third woman he may or may not be married to. Which existence is the real one? Maybe it’s all of them, or maybe none.
It should be obvious by now that Mr. Nobody is a highly impressionistic film. Director Jaco Van Dormael packs the screen with abstract, dreamlike imagery that is always striking, whether or not it makes complete sense. The key word here is “abstract.” As is entirely appropriate to the film’s theme, you never know what’s coming around the bend. Sections of the story are set on Mars, there’s an out-of-nowhere caveman sequence, and the plot repeatedly branches out to show us multiple timelines within Nemo’s two primary timelines. While this may make the movie sound like a big clusteryou-know-what, actual scientific theory is at the heart of Mr. Nobody. String Theory, the Principle of Entropy, and the Butterfly Effect are all explored through the lens of Nemo’s life. If you don’t know what those things are, fear not; Leto occasionally addresses the camera directly to explain them.
For all its abstractness, Mr. Nobody never loses its sense of emotionality. In each scenario, we see the pleasures and pains that await Nemo, based on those two choices he faced as a child. Ultimately, the film is about something to which we can all relate: wondering how our lives would have been different had we made the other choice in a given situation. It’s safe to say that every person currently walking the planet has, at some point, had to make a life-changing decision. Mr. Nobody understands the uncertainty and self-doubt that can accompany such a turning point. The impressionistic trappings are a rather noble attempt to explain them, and to show how accepting the choices we make is perhaps even more important than making them in the first place.
Jared Leto is quite good as Nemo. In some ways, the character is difficult to know, because his personality differs depending on which version of his life we’re seeing. Nonetheless, Leto provides him with a soulful quality that makes us care about Nemo in all iterations. Van Dormael surrounds the actor with a lot of visual razzle-dazzle and thematic juxtaposition that, in the end, reveals Mr. Nobody to be a passionate, thoughtful, and inquisitive exploration of the meaning of life.