SXSW 2012: Sarcasm, romanticism in 'Somebody Up There Likes Me'
Bob Byington's "Somebody Up There Likes Me" — a story of tumbling through on a streak of good luck and a little help from a magic suitcase — had its world premiere Sunday night at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas.
The screening began with costar and producer Nick Offerman taking the stage with a guitar and beginning to sing "Rhinestone Cowboy." Festival producer Janet Pierson had to inform him this was a SXSW film event, not a music event, and so the concert stopped and the screening began.
Following up on the sweet melancholy of his 2009 film, "Harmony and Me," director and co-writer Byington has crafted something of a sarcastic fable in which aging is held at bay but not quite defeated and love and friendship are truly put to the test of time.
The story covers 35 years in the life of Max (Keith Poulson), his best friend, Sal (Offerman), and the woman they both come to love (Jess Weixler). They are all aided by a magical suitcase that slows the aging process through hookups, breakups, weddings, birth, divorce and a funeral. (The special valise is never particularly explained or discussed; it's just part of the fabric of the story.)
Both Poulson and Offerman have roles in "Harmony," and Byington wrote their parts in "Somebody" with them in mind.
"It's really where the movie kind of sprang from," the Austin-based Byington said in a phone interview before the festival. "I imagined these two actors as friends, and I imagined a woman sort of coming between them, but not really. ...
"And that was the basis for the tone of the movie: how these two guys could communicate and that something cataclysmic might happen to them but that wouldn't affect them too much. The whole tone ended up being off-kilter or fable-like."
Though Offerman is a star of TV's "Parks and Recreation," Poulson has far less experience as an actor. (He's also a musician.)
"Keith has some type of presence, and it's not necessarily an actor-type presence," Byington said. "We did that on 'Harmony,' and I like to throw actors and non-actors together. I'm not sure what happens exactly, but I do think the impulse to write for Nick and Keith in the first place came out of this idea that there is some type of sparks that fly out of a thing. I don't fully understand it, but I think a scene can get a little dead if it's just actors."
The purposeful unreality of the main conceit in "Somebody" brings into relief the tart humor and jaundiced romanticism of the story. But Byington said he didn't intend to make viewers uneasy.
"There's never an impulse to make anyone uncomfortable. That's got to be the dumbest thing you could possibly have as an agenda as a filmmaker, making people uncomfortable," he said. "Do you go to a movie to be uncomfortable? Why not just open a theater and turn the heat up really high? I know there are great films by great filmmakers where the impulse is unsettling people. I'm just not interested."
For the post-screening Q&A, moderated by actor and filmmaker Alex Karpovsky, Byington was joined onstage by Poulson and Offerman, actresses Kate Lyn Sheil and Stephanie Hunt and composer Chris Baio from the band Vampire Weekend. The group was in fine spirits following the pressure-valve release of their first screening, and answers tended to drift off into sarcasm or what seemed to be inside jokes.
Asked about the decision not to use makeup or effects to age the actors during the time shifts of the story, Byington curtly responded, "Incompetence, basically."
Offerman closed the evening with a little sincerity when he noted (acknowledging the rapidly changing landscape for independent film releasing), "It's nice when you finish a movie and they show it in a theater."
— Mark Olsen, reporting from Austin, Texas
Photo: Nick Offerman in "Somebody Up There Likes Me." Photo credit: SXSW Film.