Someone Up There Likes Me, or, What A Resurrection Really Feels Like
The reason why today’s imagist fiction isn’t the rescue from a passive, addictive TV-psychology that it tries so hard to be is that most imagist writers render their material with the same tone of irony and self-consciousness that their ancestors, the literary insurgents of Beat and postmodernism, used so effectively to rebel against their own world and context. And the reason why this irreverent postmodern approach fails to help the imagists transfigure TV is simply that TV has beaten the imagists to the punch. The fact is that for at least ten years now television has been ingeniously absorbing, homogenizing, and re-presenting the very cynical postmodern aesthetic that was once the best alternative to the appeal of low, over-easy, mass-marketed narrative.
-David Foster Wallace
As you know, here at The Kugelmass Episodes, we play your requests.
This is not a new request. It comes from alert reader AR, who sent it in at least a month ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was two months.
She asked me to watch Someone Up There Likes Me, which I was able to do, although your mileage may vary. I’m not sure if it was ever out in theaters. Or maybe it’s going to be out in theaters. It’s possible that it has never actually existed except as someone’s dream about a movie that might be featured on the iTunes store.
This movie happened thanks to the surprising success of 500 Days of Summer. That movie had two huge stars, Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and was therefore super watchable despite all sorts of weaknesses. Like 500 Days of Summer, Someone Up There Likes Me has a wry, hipster-ish main dude, and a pseudo-star in the person of sidekick Nick Offerman, that mustachioed guy who plays the same character in everything from Childrens Hospital to Parks & Recreation to his own forthcoming book, That Guy Just Wrote A Book!
Someone Up There Likes Me is also full of attractive women. I don’t know exactly how many there are. (Perhaps eight?) I would apologize for not knowing their names, except that the film treats them so wretchedly that I feel like I’m only guilty of forgetting the names to protect the innocent.
Like Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer, Bob Byington’s film is about a life where significant others are the only sources of significance. To a really depressed dude, this can seem reasonable: hot girls lift his spirits, keep pop culture dynamic, and count as “other people” (thus talking to them is a radically non-solipsistic act). The best examples of films like this are Garden State and High Fidelity — a girl can lift a fellow to the skies! Even 500 Days of Summer had a certain angry charm. Someone Up There Likes Me has nothing. It’s so empty that it’s shallower and more apathetic than people are in real life.
The story is all wrong. It’s supposed to be semi-autobiographical, but it never is, because (unlike their protagonists) Byington and Webb did have something else going on — a desire to make films. Our divorced hero Max is not so lucky. He marries again — but the new girl turns out to be a bitch, so he cheats on her. Then his mistress turns out to be really boring too. Talk about unfair! When are things ever going to go his way?
The only really new thing is that the characters get older without “aging.” In other words, instead of the embarrassing makeup used in films like A Beautiful Mind, these characters look exactly the same over time, which is probably supposed to demonstrate that they’re the same on the inside. But they’re not convincingly immature either. At one point, the dude’s father-in-law dies, and when his wife asks if her father’s alright, he replies “negatory.”
NEGATORY. Nobody says that, in that situation. Not kids, or teenagers, or young adults with bad haircuts. Nobody.
There’s also an inexplicable Pulp Fiction reference, in which Byington re-uses the idea of a suitcase with a soul in it. What is going on here?
The Pulp Fiction briefcase serves a dual purpose. First of all, it makes Byington seem vaguely like an “auteur,” although he’s not really forging any sort of original vision. Second, it reminds us all that we’re just watching a movie. That’s all! It’s not real life, and it’s not supposed to be! It’s Byington’s fantasy of a world where he wouldn’t have to suffer from emotions.
I always thought Generation X got unfairly pegged as apathetic. Artists like Kurt Cobain were declared apostles of apathy, but it’d be hard to imagine anyone being more passionate than Cobain. On the other hand, it was important to realize that the choice between Ethan Hawke and Ben Stiller in Reality Bites isn’t a real choice. They’re peas in a pod: Hawke’s rebel cool depends on having a seemingly omnipotent mainstream, represented by Stiller, to rebel against.
The same Kang vs. Kodos situation has re-appeared. Endlessly recycled superheroes are standing in for heroic aesthetic aspirations, and in the shadow of Spider-Man and Superman, Someone Up There Likes Me can get away with seeming sharply observant and pleasantly small-scale, even though it’s neither. By the end of the film, the fantasy has expanded into a resurrection fantasy. Max has a kid and dies, and his kid is a lot like him, except handsomer, more successful, and more polished. He gets the soul briefcase, of course, signifying that he’s now carrying the torch. Who is he? Basically, Don Draper in Friday casual clothes.
At some point, a film has to stop being merely good on paper, and become a meaningful work of art. It has to stand for something, and this film doesn’t stand for anything, at least not anything good. I know Bob Byington isn’t this horrible in real life, but like Mark Zuckerberg and Rivers Cuomo, he’d really like to be. He’d like to grow up to be a douchebag. That’s why, like the stunted child in The Tin Drum, his fictional stand-in stays the same across decades. Max never can grow up. His conscience won’t let him.