Happy Accidents

If the Woody Allen of Annie Hall and the Nicolas Roeg of The Man Who Fell to Earth had ever collaborated on a movie, the result might have looked something like Happy Accidents. Brad Anderson’s new film, starring Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio, welds the romantic comedy and science-fiction genres together, and the result is a charming, and occasionally eerie, demonstration of how far a little conviction can take a movie.

Tomei stars as Ruby, a dysfunctional New York City single who insists on seeing herself as an incurable romantic. Frustrated by her years of dating egoists and losers, the only thing stopping her from lapsing into full-blown cynicism are the snarky bull sessions she shares with her girlfriends. Then she meets Sam, a gentle newcomer to the big city played by a relaxed, breezy D’Onofrio. Though Sam claims to hail from Dubuque, Iowa, he seems to come from a different world altogether. He has a bar code tattooed on his forearm, naively courts Ruby by playing polka music full-blast on her stereo (“What is this, an Art of War thing?” she asks in disbelief), and tells her he loves her almost before they’re done having sex the first time.

Ruby, caught up in the good feeling of their relationship, lets Sam move in with her after they’ve been together only a week. That’s when she starts noticing other tweaks in his character: his fear of miniature dogs, for instance, or the hours he spends obsessively sketching the same woman’s face over and over again. When Ruby corners him and demands an explanation, his confession hardly puts her mind at ease. He tells her that he’s a time traveler from the future—from the year 2470, to be precise—and most disturbing of all, his story holds together no matter how hard Ruby tries to shake it. As she casts about for a way to read Sam’s quirks as something other than signs of psychosis, it turns out that Sam is fighting a battle of his own that involves reworking the forces of destiny.

Happy Accidents gives that great theme of romantic comedies—two people trying to make things right between each other—a light philosophical spin. It makes you feel how tenuous the connections are that bind or cleave people, and it uses plain dumb luck as a symbol of the emotional hurdles that we have to jump over in order to be together.

Especially in its early going, Happy Accidents indulges in needlessly shaky handheld camerawork, and it’ll probably set off the alarms of anyone who’s had it with stories about urban lonelyhearts. But by the time thefilm is over, it’s at least pointing in the direction of Chris Marker’s heartbreaking La Jetee, even if it doesn’t begin to approach the highs of that landmark film. (Few movies do.) And with its miniscule budget, Happy Accidents is certainly a better attempt than Terry Gilliam gave the same material when he threw $29 million at 12 Monkeys and came up with next to nothing. There aren’t any fancy CGI effects or pieces of high-tech hardware in Happy Accidents. Anderson mostly conveys Sam’s experiences by giving him some slang from another age—such as “gene dupes” and “back travelers”—and having him talk about time travel in a way that’s as speculative as it is funny. In feeling, Happy Accidents is reminiscent of 1998’s Last Night, in which Don McKellar sketched a minimalist’s portrait of the end of the world by doing no more than emptying a couple of city blocks and having his actors throw anxious glances in the direction of the sky.

Whatever you do, don’t tell Marisa Tomei that she’s acting in some gossamer-thin romantic comedy. Tomei became a target of scorn overnight when her clever turn in My Cousin Vinnie stole the Oscar away from two widely-admired performances by Vanessa Redgrave and Judy Davis, but her focused work in Happy Accidents makes you forget all the backbiting and see her with fresh eyes. Trimmed-down and angular, with a pointed jaw and sinewy biceps, her Ruby is a comfortably balanced creation: vulnerable without being wimpy, tough without being a pain in the neck. Tomei burns off the cliches from what could have been another nagging Sex & the City-type character and gives Ruby a biting sense of urgency that’s beautiful—and even valiant.

– Tom Block