Film Review – “Nobody”

Here’s my brutal review of the film Nobody (recently screened here at Middlebury), which was published in the Middlebury Campus:

It often seems that artists’ favorite thing to tell stories about is…artists.  The number of narratives centered on creative types is certainly out of proportion with the percent of “artists” in the actual population.  But we all must speak, to some degree, from experience, and these stories are not inherently self-serving, conceited, and vapid—countless works have documented the creative struggle with great pathos and wisdom.

Nobody serves as a sort of catalog of the worst things a narrative work about artists can be.  The film—directed, written, and produced by Rob Perez ’95, with additional production credit to Damien Saccani ’96—screened in Dana Auditorium on Sunday night to an audience of about 20 (surely the double-booking with the Oscars are to blame for low attendance).  It has pretentious inter-title quotations from great artists, their connection to the film tenuous at best, and it has an array of stock art-school caricatures for characters.  But most of all, it has Lindeman: its whiny, soulless, deeply unlikable main character—is there a “Worst Protagonists Ever” contest we can enter this guy in?—whose artistic ennui is so disconnected from reality that it comes off almost as a parody of past portrayals of artistic struggle.  It’s the concept of writer’s block taken to its lazy, unfeasible, incredibly frustrating extreme.

In Scene One, we get Lindeman whining to his psychiatrist that they can’t possibly have “worked through all his issues”, because he needs suffering to create his sculpture.  Next is a cheap joke about Jews (if Lindeman was a Jew, maybe they’d have something to work with, as far as suffering), which, alas, is regurgitated later in the film in an attempt to create one of those things they call “motifs”.  And here, after about thirty seconds, we’ve reached the end of the road in terms of Lindeman’s character development.  For the rest of the film, we have to listen to this astoundingly one-dimensional protagonist moan and groan because he no longer has a “thing” to drive his art—he’s suffering because he’s not suffering.  Now, a paradox like this could work with panache in, say, a Charlie Kaufman script, but there is literally not one single humanizing element about Lindeman to make us care about anything he says in his sarcastic, monotonic drawl.  We get to hear him plead for someone to tell him what the point of art is (to which there are many not-so-elusive answers) and complain to his cryptic German advisor that there’s no point being “just good” if you can’t be “great”.  Whether this unrelatability is the fault of the script or of newcomer Sam Rosen’s performance, I don’t know; but Sam Rosen’s career has already ended, in my eyes, because I’ll never be able to watch this actor in another role without thinking of empty, despicable Lindeman.

The actual plot consists of Lindeman being inserted into a hopelessly cliché series of what we in the “indie filmmaking” business call “quirky situations” in an attempt to find his new “thing”.  At a meeting with some Goths at a graveyard, Lindeman is pressured to sacrifice a goat (quirky!), but instead he runs away with the goat.  The goat is handicapped, and can apparently stand up, but can’t walk (wha?), because I suppose it would look “funny” to have our hero inexplicably carry a goat around in his arms for the rest of the film.  Oh, and he’s homophobic, too, or at least until he gets to participate in some desperately stereotypical karaoke at a gay bar.  But as quickly as he dropped his prejudices, he loses heart, announcing, “Being gay is awesome.  I don’t do awesome.”  And in the most pointless “quirky situation” of all, he visits the home of some sort of Chinese sexual mystic, yells “No!” when she holds up a ferret, and leaves, showing Perez’s reluctance to push for any sort of depth or character development, any value whatsoever, in this series of empty scenes.

Eventually, the whole art school gang goes gallivanting into the woods for a weekend, and the Pot Brownie Scene and the Love Scene ensue—I won’t get into it.  Back at school, something finally clicks for Lindeman, and he decides his “thing” is going to be “being nobody”, whatever this means, and he carves, over the course of a hilariously repetitive montage, his big granite block into a big granite zero, or something.  The gang graduates, sits picturesquely in a line on a grassy hill, and Lindeman delivers his most obvious voiceover in a movie filled to the brim with obvious voiceovers.  “I’m Lindeman,” he says, “I’m just doing what I can with what I got.”  Asked what he’s going to do next, he replies, “I don’t know, but I think it’s gonna be good.”

Perhaps this film could squeak by if it was actually a comedy, as it purports to be (“nobodythecomedy.com”).  Even the cheapest of laughs would suffice.  But all the characters are such cardboard cutouts, and the performances so tepid, that the jokes earn a roll-eyed forehead slap at best (see: Jewish joke), often simply fall flat on their faces, and provoke fury at worst.  I laughed once during the film’s ninety minutes: Lindeman’s friend Fiona asks what he will do in the “real world” if he abandons art, to which he answers “I’ll get a real job, like a beekeeper or a blacksmith or something,” and hearing myself laugh, I marveled at this foreign sound that had involuntary emanated from my body, so out of place it was with the suppressed rage I felt during most of the film.

Maybe Nobody is in on its own joke, I pondered, when one of the über-critical art school students prophetically utters that a piece is “so derivative it’s not even derivative.”  If such a feat is possible, Nobody accomplishes it, for it is truly unique in the totality of its unoriginality.  I tried to imagine an ending that would redeem this movie, some unexpected postmodern twist in which the curtain was pulled back and it was revealed to us to be a farce after all; some sort of gory accident in which all of these horrible characters drive off a cliff and drown in the sea would probably be sufficiently gratifying.

Production-wise, the film could pass as a cute sort of indie-film-pastiche were the script not so irredeemably trite.  It has the requisite parts: all-lowercase Helvetica titles announcing the names of new characters, moody shots “invested with meaning”, even a record scratch noise signifying surprise.  But alas, the art school kids this movie tries to market itself to, if they are as cynical as it portrays them to be, will see right through to its empty core.  Perhaps a more suitable target demographic would be 12-to-17-year-olds with art school aspirations, like the film’s only semi-relatable character: the innocent, alleged-genius P.K., whose work is, surprise surprise, never shown to us—genius and Nobody are mutually exclusive.  Astoundingly, Perez stated after the film that writers for college newspapers have been responding positively to this film, but I know one “arty kid” that hasn’t been duped, and personally, I’m going to take a break from movies about suffering artists for a while.

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~ by toren on March 16, 2010.

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