It’s the rare film built around a dual premise that functions equally well from each opposing perspective.
Romantic comedies and movies about time travel each tend to be slaves to their restrictive tropes and repetitive structures, but Brad Anderson’s 2000 film Happy Accidents blends the better qualities of both genres in a unique way. It’s the rare film built around a dual premise that functions equally well from each opposing perspective.
At first, the film is about Ruby Weaver (Marisa Tomei), a New Yorker who habitually tries to fix men in her relationships. Once she meets an eccentric man named Sam Deed (Vincent D’Onofrio), it seems we’re in for a straightforward (if quirky) exploration of Ruby’s perpetual attraction to damaged men. In a short amount of time, Sam’s idiosyncrasies pile rather high. He speaks several languages with savant fluency. He seems frightened of dogs and refers to all forms of alcohol as Merlot. Each odd tic has its own simple explanation, even if the procession of excuses strains credulity. But the other shoe drops and the reasoning for Sam’s strangeness shifts the playing field.
Sam, he eventually confesses, is a time traveler. He’s come back to 1999 from the year 2470, a world where Gene Dupes procreate solely through in vitro fertilization. Sam’s parents were anachronists, so he’s a “biological”, something of a throwback in his time. He spouts off a potpourri of colorful science fiction jargon, succeeding only in convincing Ruby that he’s absolutely fucking insane. But for the remainder of its run time, the film repeatedly flips back and forth between the conflicting interpretations of its narrative. In one scene, like Ruby, you’re 100% certain Sam is just a well-intentioned nutjob, but in the next, he gives you just enough doubt to make his situation more sympathetic.
It’s a testament to Tomei and D’Onofrio that the film is able to pull off this split identity with such ease. Genre mash-ups can be inconsistent messes, but they have such easy chemistry together, and their emotions always ring so genuine, that you’re anchored by their romance. D’Onofrio has the showier role here, letting his usually manic energy loose in a way that alternately seduces the viewer (and Ruby) while giving cause for deep concern. But with Ruby, Tomei delivered one of her most purely likable performances, making her so much more relatable than some of the wooden leads romance films are usually populated with. This is a film that has it both ways.
As a romcom, there’s a charming, nervous energy around the editing and scene structure that calls to mind Woody Allen’s best work without getting bogged down by his neuroses. But as a possible sci-fi flick, the internal logic of Sam’s backstory is just as thrilling as the romance is endearing. At times, it feels like a smart deconstruction of the romantic comedy paradigm. When one of Ruby’s friends says, “You’re so old fashioned and he’s from the future,” it somehow rings true in the context of the narrative and as a pitch perfect distillation of how corny romcom dialogue can be. There’s one standout scene that mixes the two genres the most strikingly.
In the middle of the film, Ruby asks Sam to explain the logistics of time travel, which sets up the most frustrating scene in any movie about time travel. This is never the scene you want to see in a movie about traveling to the past. But Sam illustrates his point using Ruby’s right leg, pointing out “the present” as her big toe and reaching up under her skirt as “the past.” By curling her foot in the direction of her knee, he’s able to visually present the concept of bending the space time continuum, while simultaneously taking her mind off their conundrum with the promise of sex. It’s the hottest explanation of time travel ever committed to celluloid.
If the film has a failing, it’s that it stretches the balancing act out a bit too long, precisely past the point where you really care whether or not Sam is telling the truth. By the final act, he’s altered his story three separate times, finally revealing that the real reason he’s come back is to alter the past and save Ruby from dying in an accident. It’s a compelling twist, but arriving when it does, it pales in comparison to the viewer’s desire to see Ruby and Sam work things out and live happily ever after. In your average romantic comedy, the writer’s main principal task is finding reasons to keep the lovely couple apart. Here, writer/director Brad Anderson conceived of an entire science fiction film’s worth of mythology to drive that necessary wedge. Whether or not Sam’s issues are literal or metaphorical ceases to be relevant.
But when all’s said and done and we get our answer about what Sam was really born in, the prestige in this storytelling magic trick can’t match the elation we feel at these lovebirds finally getting to settle.