Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.

HAPPY ACCIDENTS (2000)

Happy Accidents

Ruby (Marisa Tomei) is your standard victim of love in the ’90s, suffering through failed relationship after failed relationship. Just when she’s about to give up on romance altogether, she meets Sam (Vincent D’Onofrio), who might just be the one if it weren’t for his strange behavior, his lack of societal awareness, or his claims that he’s a time traveler from the year 2470.

THE STORY:
It’s time to come clean; I don’t want to write this review.

Class dismissed.

Don’t worry, it’s good news.

If you hadn’t caught on to the pattern over the last few weeks, I usually tried to pair a time travel action movie with a time travel romantic comedy, as those seem to be the two most common sub-genres. Well, after taking several pages of notes during this film, it was time to triumphantly drop the pen. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to crown Happy Accidents as the winner in the temporal romcom category, and I don’t want to chance spoiling a damn thing about it.

Oh, great, I just ruined the famous pointing scene!

I promise not to pull as blatant a cop-out as I did with Primer, but trust me, this movie contains the same levels of indie pic brilliance; it’s just sprinkled with more romance than science. The plot of Safety Not Guaranteed is actually fairly similar (falling in love with someone who claims to be a time traveler and attempting to find out if he’s telling the truth), but nothing feels out of place in this story. The mystery unfolds with equal amounts of evidence for and against, but the ending still left me satisfied. Cheering, even. (Don’t think for a second that you know how it ends just because I reviewed it as part of Time Out. *evil cackle*)

Tired of these couple shots? They’re all you’re getting.

What really makes the mystery work isn’t a lack of information, but an abundance. When Sam finally lets it slip that he’s a “back-traveler,” he proceeds to spew so many details about the future for the rest of the movie that I had to put my notes down. Some of it is hilarious. Some of it is poignant. All of it is so complicated that Sam could only be insane or telling the truth. What’s even more interesting is what Sam doesn’t know, especially in regards to time travel. If you were sent almost 500 years into the past, could you explain how your phone works without it sounding like magic?

THE ACTING:
You could argue that Vincent D’Onofrio was trying to play his character as though he had Asperger’s syndrome. Sam has trouble relating to others, he’s constantly fascinated by small details, and he’s got a head full of knowledge, so it’s easy to see how Vincent would consider studying people with Asperger’s in order to play up the ambiguity. Regardless, his performance is sweet and engaging, and his quiet demeanor coupled with the confidence with which he spews his futuristic “facts” always keeps you guessing.

It’s always the quiet ones who violate the timestream.

Marisa Tomei’s exasperation was a little hard to handle in the first act, but I blame this on my sheer hatred of the “Ugh, Nineties Love, Right?” genre. Still, while her Ruby is always poised for the next big disappointment in her life, she’s lovable as all hell when Sam turns on the charm. “Cautiously romantic” would be a fitting description.

“I just want to meet a man I can constantly distrust.”

There’s also– no, you should see for yourself. Get on it.

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
There are no time travel effects to be seen in this film, as Sam claims he only made the one trip and can’t travel again. I feel like I’ve already said too much. However, since this is an indie flick, there are still some artsy, um, flourishes, so I guess those count?

Here’s what his time machine looks like– OOPS.

OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF (THAT YOU SHOULDN’T READ):

  • One pet peeve of mine about time travel films is when they try to cram as many quick puns and phrases about time as they can into the first few scenes. I get that most people won’t know this is a movie about time travel going in, but if you do know, you won’t be able to ignore every instance of “it’s about time” or “killing time” or “running out of time.” One of Ruby’s friends even says she’s like an incurable romantic that’s been “thwarted back to 1955,” which I can’t help but think is an intentional reference to a certain movie I’ve seen an awful lot of this year.
  • I can’t even poop on the supposed time travel rules. Sam’s claims of not knowing them himself and that science in 2470 is just too advanced for us to comprehend leaves them too vague to nitpick. And honestly, Sam’s too intense to argue with. I’ve been de-logicked by charm, and I’m perfectly fine with that.

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
Half of this movie is Ruby calling bullshit on Sam, but for sheer intensity, you can’t beat the scene where she threatens to break up with him unless he can explain time travel to the best of his ability. (Side note, his eventual demonstration is sillier and sexier than it has any right to be.) When Sam counters that most of us can’t explain how an internal combustion engine works, Ruby ain’t havin’ that shit.

“You don’t even know how the basic quantum mechanics work!

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Having trudged through the quagmire that is the time travel romcom, I’m glad to have finally found the treasure on the other side. Happy Accidents is by no means perfect. It’s definitely an IFC production, so you get tiny flashes of artsy pretentiousness here and there, but none of it is jarring enough to bring the movie down. The wonderful chemistry between D’Onofrio and Tomei is coupled with an intensely detailed script that’s still not afraid to have fun. Every shift in tone is exactly what’s needed in this study of time travel as aphrodisiac. If you, like me, had to watch Kate & Fucking Leopold recently, I assure you that this will wash the aftertaste out of your mouth. See it.

LATER THIS WEEK:
The Butterfly Effect (2004)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.