How much do our actions affect what happens to us? How does making decisions – or not making decisions – change our lives? What is the “right” choice? These are the questions posed by Mr. Nobody (2009), a sci-fi drama portraying the life of Nemo Nobody, the oldest mortal man. In this eternally youthful futuristic society, thanks to the discovery of endless cell renewal, Nemo’s death is a news event that draws worldwide interest. As he’s nearing his end, Nemo’s doctor hypnotizes him so that he can reveal the events that shaped his life.
Nemo is a special child who remembers his pre-birth existence. The “Angels of Oblivion” forgot to press their finger against his lips – where all other kids are born having forgotten everything, Nemo is gifted with this memory, along with the ability to see all possibilities stretching out before him. Instead of this being an advantage, however, Nemo is crippled by choice. “As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible,” narrates a young Nemo, going back and forth between two pastries. And this could be true, at least until the choice is made for you, which Nemo learns during his parents’ separation. Forced to choose between his mother and father, Nemo’s inability to decide draws him down a myriad of paths in his adult life.
We switch between three different concurrent storylines, each featuring a different romantic lead. I was struck by the movie’s use of vibrant color here, with each primary color signifying a different love. Red is Anna (Diane Kruger), Nemo’s soon-to-be step-sister, who is amorous and daring and, as some might see, his one true love. Blue is Elise (Sarah Polley), who Nemo spies at a dance and whose mental instability and melancholy is immediately apparent to us. And yellow is Jean (Linh-Dan Pham), an…Asian? That seems a little on the nose, but it’s not untrue. Although, I’ll be generous and say that yellow here signifies friendship, which is all Nemo can see for the teenaged girl he randomly decides he will marry after Elise breaks his gaze at the same dance. (Still…why make the yellow girl Asian?)
Nemo has the benefit (or disadvantage?) of seeing the small decisions he makes and the outcomes they produce, his life branching off like fractals from each intersection. He catches up to his mother on the train and he embarks on a life defined by Anna. His shoelace breaks and he’s left behind with his father. He sees Elise with an older boy at her house and his furious escape on his bike leads to disastrous consequences. In that same moment he holds back a few seconds longer and Elise is alone, allowing Nemo to make his move. In his married, but bored, life with Jean, an adult Nemo (played by Jared Leto, who, my god, is every bit as beautiful as when he was Jordan Catalano), carves “Yes” and “No” into the sides of a coin, letting fate make his decisions.
“It was meant to be. Have you ever heard of the butterfly effect?” Nemo’s father says, explaining how he met his mother. And that’s what this movie is about, how small decisions change the course of our lives. When you make one choice, something else either does or does not happen. The possible outcomes of your choices are only available to you until forces outside your control make the choice for you. But which is the right choice? “Each of these lives is the right one. Every path is the right path. Everything could have been anything else and it would have just as much meaning,” Nemo explains to a journalist from his deathbed. It’s the Schrödinger’s Cat of decision making. To a nine-year-old boy faced with an impossible choice, knowing every possible outcome is paralyzing. The lesson for us is that it is only by not knowing, that we can drive forward on the course of our lives.