A Glitch in Time

From the director of the spooky Session 9 comes the amiable farce Happy Accidents

Sep 19, 2001 at 4:00 am
The beautiful little conceit at the heart of Brad Anderson's Happy Accidents is that audiences will sit still once more for the crackpot notion of time travel -- and in a movie that's not science fiction. To his credit, and with an implied bow to Back to the Future and its predecessors, Anderson (Session 9, Next Stop Wonderland) pulls off the trick. All but the coldest hearts in the house will likely become willing conspirators in the idea that a wary, many-times-burned New Yorker will at least consider the idea that her latest boyfriend was actually born in Dubuque, Iowa, in the year 2439. Or that he wasn't.

Anderson, a bright light among the new independents, may not have much in the way of budget to work with, but he's not handicapped by poverty of thought. This amiable romantic comedy is also extremely clever (hip, too), and it puts to shame most of the plodding, self-conscious, poorly written films commonly upheld these days as coherent replies to Hollywood's soul-Tdeadening caution. I'll bet this guy can make a terrific film with $30 million, too.

His heroine is pretty Ruby Weaver (Marisa Tomei), a downtown type whose romantic résumé is darkened by failures -- the narcissist, the bad drummer, the boozer, the gender-flopper. So when a pleasant-enough park-bench stranger named Sam Deed (Vincent D'Onofrio) starts paying special attention to her, she's understandably gun-shy -- or rather, man-shy. Little does our Ruby know what emotional adventures await her. She may have fetishists and junkies in her back pages, but no one as bizarre as Sam. In the beginning, he's simply a little weird -- obviously fluent in half-a-dozen languages but unable to come up with the English word for "wine"; bold in his advances and easy in his charm but seemingly taken with old polka records and scared stiff of little dogs. For the first 20 minutes, we, too, are kept guessing. What's with this guy? And where's this movie headed?

Not to worry. Once Sam's outlandish story is out of the bag, Happy Accidents quickly picks up steam, and we are as intrigued as Ruby with the possibility -- the possibility -- that he really is a "back traveler" from the 25th century, a time when, thanks to geologic and ecological disasters, Dubuque is on the Atlantic coast and the majority "gene-dupes" fight pitched battles with small bands of "anachronists" over "nostalgia rights."

Will Ruby come to believe this stuff? Or will she play along while paying closer attention to her psychotherapist (Holland Taylor), who speculates that Sam is suffering from temporal-lobe epilepsy -- a disorienting (but creativity-triggering) major glitch that also afflicted such geniuses as Dostoevsky and van Gogh. Or will she heed her friend Gretchen (Nadia Dajani), who sees Sam's entire fantasy as a bit of kinky game-playing? While Ruby weighs the evidence, Anderson has all kinds of fun with Sam's apparent near-misses regarding reality in the late 20th century (Accidents was filmed in 1999) and his alleged insights into the future. On his best behavior for dinner at Ruby's parents', he bites into an asparagus and comments: "Lillian, these are great pickles." A bit later, he explains that in the 23rd century, scientists confirmed the existence of God -- several gods, actually -- using something called a "telepathyscope."

"He's a freak," Ruby tells Gretchen, "but he tells a good story." Still, she's not so sure it's all fiction, and neither are we. Thus are we all drawn not only into a romantic mystery but into an intriguing (and nicely understated) tug-o'-war between faith and science.

D'Onofrio and Tomei create good chemistry. Ruby's impatient, semistreetwise Manhattan attitudes are tempered by her romantic inclinations. Sam's dumbbell questions ("What is this stuff?" he asks about a joint) can have great charm; a moment later, he sounds like either a scientific genius or a raving lunatic when he starts expounding on the laws of the universe. Together they make for a fun couple -- really -- and when it comes time to resolve Sam's mystery, it doesn't really matter what his origins are. We like him pretty well in any time frame or state of mind. Who wouldn't like a guy who, smashed on shots of bourbon, keeps shouting at the bartender for "another merlot"? We come to care for Ruby, too. After all, she's endured bad relationships with a Jew for Jesus and a preening Frenchman. Doesn't she deserve another chance, even if it's with a guy who just might be almost 500 years her junior?