Following Nemo Nobody’s (Jared Leto) life across multiple paths of decision-making, it all stems from a single choice: when his parents divorce does he leave with his mother or stay with his father? Different possible lives are presented, although the main difference is in which women he marries. There are three choices, and all three of them sit on the bench as children watching him walk past, ready to be chosen: Anna (Juno Temple, then Diane Kruger), his one true love and at one point step-sister; Elise (Sarah Polley) who gives Nemo kids but also has an inconvenient mental illness; and Jeanne (Linh Dan Pham) who is wealthy and loves Nemo but he can’t love her back. He narrates all this as an 118 year old, the last mortal left in the year 2092.
In contrast with the cinematography and some of the more surreal imagery this is a colossal failure of imagination on writer-director Jaco Van Dormael’s part, who plays reducto ad absurdum with life. Despite Nemo’s claim that every path is equal, every path is valid, Anna is the clear front-runner for the narcissistic Nemo’s affections. Even when he doesn't “choose” her (an unfortunate and unexamined implication in all this being that his wives never have choices of their own), her life ends up revolving around his anyway. The conceit of the film, that there’s no destiny apart from what we create for ourselves through our choices, falls apart like the facile pseudo-philosophy it is.
But then so much of the film relies on pop philosophy, pop physics, and pop psychology, often explained directly to the audience by Jared Leto, that this hollowness shouldn't be surprising. The side stories (everything apart from the marriages) have the potential for engaging imagery - a future city-scape, a giant foot crushing a house, a car airbag saying “GAME OVER”, many bicycles floating through space - but they feel out of place, drawn from other sources - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2046, 2001: A Space Odyssey, even Monty Python, and so on. The bizarre imagery in those films is motivated, either through the plot, the characters, scientific ideas, or satire; Mr. Nobody does it because it looks cool, hoping to distract the audience from the true banality and conventionality of what the film actually is: a stock teen romance. It’s fitting that it would star Jared Leto, an actor/musician who goes to extraordinary vain lengths to prove how not vain he is: losing and gaining weight for Requiem for a Dream and Chapter 27 respectively; burying himself under old age make-up in this film; and, judging by his comments about the role what must be the most grotesque transformation in his mind, playing a trans woman in Dallas Buyer’s Club.
The part of the film that works, that resonates on the emotional level it’s supposed to, is Nemo and Anna’s teenaged relationship but this is undercut at every turn. Sarah Polley is an excellent actress and comes the closest to bringing emotional weight to her role, but her character’s mental health problems are insultingly easily explained away as stemming from an unconsummated crush when she was 15. The mechanics of the film constantly push the narrative towards an incredibly simplistic and dangerous view that everything can be reduced to a basic cause and effect. It’s seductive, especially at the age Nemo and Anna begin their relationship, but it’s a poor model for life and results in a poor excuse for a metaphysical drama.