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Moments of mirth fail to sustain ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’

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Max Keith Poulson

Sal Nick Offerman

Lyla Jess Weixler

Tribeca Film presents a film written and directed by Bob Byington. Running time: 75 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday at the Music Box (and on video on demand).

Updated: April 9, 2013 10:59AM

‘Somebody Up There Likes Me” shares a title with a 1956 boxing movie starring Paul Newman. Telling them apart isn’t hard. In the old movie, the hero occasionally connects.

In the new one, Max (Keith Poulson) is a mope who drifts through life in a state of detachment from all he meets. He’s prone to silent stares and deadpan rejoinders. He never gets happy. He never gets sad. Once, he gets a little angry.

Max works as a steakhouse waiter and banters dryly with an equally blase co-worker (Nick Offerman of “Parks & Recreation,” also a producer of the movie) who seems to be his only friend.

At a languid pace, writer and director Bob Byington follows Max through marriage, fatherhood, a business venture. He has a suitcase, contents unknown, that glows “Pulp Fiction” style and possesses magical qualities hinted at for a while and laid bare at the end. Every few minutes the picture turns animated and the story jumps ahead five years, none of the characters having evolved, and some but not all having aged.

They are too far from reality to be relatable, and too grounded to be silly. It’s not that they don’t do anything, it’s that what they do, however momentous, fazes no one. This apparently is meant to be the point, that some people can’t be bothered to embrace anything, but spelling it out ad nauseam makes for an unfulfilling film experience.

Livelier, more promising characters emerge — a man desperate to discuss his looming imprisonment, a couple arguing over Chap-Stick — but “Somebody Up There Likes Me” dispenses with them quickly, ignoring their motivation or their meaning, like a Wes Anderson first draft.

At times, genuinely funny things are said out of nowhere, as when Max parries with diners objecting to being called “you guys,” or someone mistakes the word “raises” for “raisins.” Such clever occasions rescue this tale from total vacuity. But they’re isolated moments, little islands of mirth floating in a nothing of a movie.

Note: Nick Offerman will conduct Q&A sessions after the film’s screenings at 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

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