AFI Fest: Somebody Up There Likes Me, by Scott Nye
There are a few words associated with this film that will turn off a few potential viewers. Hell, I almost avoided it myself. When you’re faced with a deadpan comedy about an aloof, disaffected twentysomething and his incurable malaise, the lack of immediate enthusiasm should be perfectly understandable. But luckily, my schedule during AFI Fest worked out in such a way that I couldn’t see much harm in catching a film co-starring Nick Offerman during an otherwise uncompelling block. I ended up seeing one of the best movies of the year.
Keith Poulson stars as Max, who we meet in his 20s and will eventually see grow into his 50s, though Poulson is the only member of the cast who does not age. He’s recently divorced, though his status as a single man will not last long. He’s working as a server at a steakhouse, though he will eventually become wealthy. Through almost no doing of his own – and Max takes very little action in any area of life – he will succeed in the classical sense of the word, though almost nothing about him will change. His best, and only, friend will remain a man much older than him (Sal, played by Nick Offerman). His son will eclipse him in maturity, and soon be played by an actor older than Poulson, though Max will always see him the same way. And gradually Max’s life will have largely passed without him ever really investing in anything. Writer/director Bob Byington rhythmically checks in with him every five years, to the point where the passage of time becomes as casual to us as it clearly is to Max.
Yet this is not played as grand tragedy, but rather cosmic comedy, the kind of overarching irony usually reserved for Russian short stories, with a beat-by-beat wit and humor that eclipses any more obviously comedic film I’ve seen this year. I laughed relentlessly during its blissful 76 minutes, so caught up with the characters’ singular mix of narcissism and apathy, and more acutely, Byington’s expression thereof. He wrote the film for Poulson and Offerman, and his affection for each performer shows. He plays perfectly to each of their strengths, which for Poulson amounts to a natural, non-actor charisma, and for Offerman, a very precise, on-point representation of character. Offerman’s manner of speaking has been made famous thanks to his work on Parks & Recreation, but there are still particular turns of phrase and pronunciations here that nearly put me on the floor, never mind a certain posture and movement of a man certain he owns his surroundings.
Exploring a contemporary mindset of a man endlessly in his 20s, Somebody Up There Likes Me is so much more than the “deadpan comedy” tag would indicate, yet it doesn’t use its big-idea themes as an excuse to not actually be funny. Even when it touches on something poignant or pointed, it mixes in humor, remembering that the hilarious and the tragic often go hand in hand. Tribeca Film has this one for distribution, and at the Q&A following the screening, Offerman (who also produced the film) said it will likely find most of its life on VOD, but that several theaters around the country, including Cinefamily here in Los Angeles, will give it theatrical playdates early next year. If you’re able to see it in a theater, I highly, highly recommend you do so, as it plays great with an audience. Otherwise, invite some friends over for an extraordinary, resonant comedy.