Seldom does a contemporary film fail to bash the audience over the head with tell-tale signs of its genre. Horror films are compiled of shots and music that scream “someone is going to be killed.” Romances, with their long shots of the leads experiencing emotion, have a saccharine sense of inevitability.
Thrillers artificially establish a sense of urgency with their pounding music, sweating heroes, and ticking clocks. With Happy Accidents, playing at Images Cinema through Thursday, Brad Anderson (writer and director of The Darien Gap, Next Stop Wonderland and Session 9, his most recent) has managed to create a film that defies these sorts of expectations, allowing the audience to become caught up in both the characters and the story. Happy Accidents is a time-travel sci-fi, but it is also a quirky relationship film. It is a romantic comedy, but it is also a kind of thriller.
Set in New York City a few years ago, the film follows the development of an unlikely romance. Ruby (Marisa Tomei) is a recovering codependent who moves from one flawed boyfriend to another, each time feeling it is her job to somehow “fix” him. She sees a therapist, played by Holland Taylor, who teaches Ruby to look into a mirror and utter platitudes such as “I need balance in my life.” Within her group of close female friends, she is considered the most likely to fall in love and the least likely to stay there.
Sam (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a sweet, confused, and somewhat dopey van driver for a hospice. He claims that he never left his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa before coming to the city three months earlier, and that he fears small dogs because they don’t have any in Dubuque. Sam thinks polka is great dance music and calls every kind of alcohol “merlot.”
After meeting Sam, Ruby, against her own better judgement, lets him move in with her, thinking she has found a safe, sweet and loving (if somewhat quirky) man. Soon she begins to notice that Sam is stranger than she ever imagined. He mutters strange phrases in his sleep, such as “break the causal chain.” He has short spells where he stares into space. The source of all of these seemingly disconnected characteristics is revealed when Sam tells Ruby his secret: that he is a “back-traveler” who has arrived in 1999 from Dubuque in 2470. As Sam explains and expands upon his story, Ruby alternates between fear for Sam’s mental state and enjoyment of what she considers a game between the two of them. However, as his story becomes less of a game and more a part of their lives, Ruby must decide between what her heart and her mind tell her.
Although the science fiction elements of the film have resonance with 1984, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Quantum Leap and the Star Trek series, Happy Accidents remains firmly rooted in Sam and Ruby’s relationship. Rather than delving into the myriad paradoxes (and cliches) that time travel films so often do, the film raises serious questions about how two people from different worlds establish a relationship and trust in the face of what seems to be mental illness.
Almost every time-travel film, from Back to the Future to 12 Monkeys deals with the question of whether the past is fixed or if it can be changed. In Happy Accidents, Anderson establishes that this question is inextricably linked with Sam and Ruby’s love. Sam mentions early in the film the popular belief that happiness and sadness can speed and slow the passage of time. This idea of time as an emotional construct is then taken a step further with his theory that a concentration of emotional energy in one moment can transform the past.
In many time travel films, it is impossible to understand why the “straight man” character does not believe the time traveler’s story. Here it is easier to understand, since D’Onofrio’s Sam is a perfectly imperfect time traveler, not especially talented at either lying or at convincing anyone of the truth.
D’Onofrio is equal parts inaccessible and lovable, as Anderson attempts to straddle the line between the audience’s trust in Sam’s story and belief that Sam is hiding something. Sam speaks with the naivete and simplicity of a child, while Ruby is the popular concept of the sarcastic New Yorker, but not to the point of annoyance. Tomei endears herself to the audience even through Ruby’s vacillations between passion and rationalism. Her outbursts of emotion and violent mood swings provide some huge laughs, as in one scene where she attempts to through Sam out of her apartment, but only ends up in bed with him again. Together, the leads create a believable, dysfunctional couple upon whose dynamic the plot hinges.
Although Anderson’s screenplay is extremely plot-driven, he finds moments for interesting cinematic effects which flavor the entire film. One effect is Sam’s spells, where, for him, time moves backwards.
While Sam and Ruby watch a slasher film in a movie theater, he experiences one of these spells, and what was a violent and horrifying scene becomes, for him, a happy moment where the victims are saved. These beautiful and uncanny slow-motion sequences are used by Anderson to illustrate how the passage of time is destructive and in its reversal lies salvation.
Another beautiful effect is Anderson’s use of collage sequences which illustrate Sam’s stories of the future. These collages, consisting of zooms and pans of photographs with a few moving elements are more imaginative and interesting than any representation of 2470, which would have certainly played false on the screen, and probably have been impossible for the budget. Photos are signifiers of memory and happiness in Happy Accidents, and their use is tracked through the entire film like the reverse-motion sequences.
More filmmakers should take a cue from Anderson by paying less attention to the requirements of genre and, instead, rooting their stories in interesting characters in difficult situations. Films often lack the heart of Anderson’s and rely instead on contrivances of plot and gimmicks. Happy Accidents is a wonderful film from a creative mind with a rare faith in the human ability for love and trust.