Nighy, made famous through his 2003 role as Billy Mack in Love Actually, specializes in ironic characters with a self-satisfied eccentricity, and whatever words are coming out of his mouth, his ironic gaze suggests he’s really thinking about something more complex and interesting. In Somewhere…, he plays Alan, a dapper, emotionally remote, widowed Merseyside tailor, trying to mend fences with his family.
We first see Alan standing on a remote beach surrounded by life-size metal statues, trying to make conversation with a silent man in an ice-cream truck. He then takes a phone call from his son, Peter (Sam Riley) who’s going to meet him for a road trip. Alan, we learn, is on a long, apparently fruitless quest to find Sam’s older brother, Michael, who left many years before amidst a heated game of Scrabble. Now Alan’s heading to a coroner’s office in a distant town to look at a corpse, which might be what remains of his son.
Depressing as that subject should be, first-time feature director Carl Hunter employs a storybook style, suggestive of Wes Anderson or Aki Kaurismaki. Driving scenes use obvious back projection. He uses bits of animation, black-and-white flashbacks, and dictionary definitions of words appearing against old-fashioned wallpaper. The awfulness of a parent losing a child is kept at a distance through a lattice screen of visual and verbal artifice.
The title could as easily be “The Scrabble Movie,” like The Lego Movie or The Emoji Movie. In spite of the devastating family rift, Alan continues to play Scrabble compulsively, on his phone or a computer. He’s a font of information on Scrabble-friendly words like “qi” (Chinese for life force) or “zo” (a cross between a yak and a cow.). The writer here is the veteran Frank Cottrell Boyce, well-known for his work with Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, 24 Hour Party People) and Danny Boyle (Millions) and he plays with words, misunderstandings, and non sequiturs in a way that feel like Harold Pinter-Lite. Throughout, there’s an implicit parallel between Alan’s fascination with both words and clothing, recalling Jonathan Swift’s axiom, “Proper words in proper places make the true definition of style.”
Though Alan is adept at finding the right words to put into boxes, he’s not good at expressing his feelings. At the shabby inn where Alan and Peter stay the night, they meet another couple, Margaret and Arthur (Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny), who have also travelled to see if the corpse is their son. On the evening before the coroner’s visit, Alan manages to hustle Arthur at Scrabble for a couple of hundred quid.
For Peter, the morgue visit contributes to a lifetime of evidence of his father’s missing empathy gene. Shortly after, Alan, recognizing his shortcomings, decides to move in with Peter and his family in their tiny home. Peter stews but his wife, Sue (Alice Lowe) — who intuits that Peter needs this fatherly bond — warmly welcomes Alan into their small house. Soon, Alan installs himself on the lower bunkbed of the withdrawn teenaged son, Jack (Louis Healy), gets Jack playing online Scrabble, and teaches the kid how to dress like a gentleman to attract classmate Rachel (Ella-Grace Gregoire).
The movie’s title comes from the rule governing the proper use of suit buttons: The top button, sometimes; the middle button, always; the bottom button, never. You could apply the same adverbs of the title to the film: Sometimes, the script is very funny; always, it tries too hard to please; and it never lets you forget that it has been calculated down to a smirk and a teardrop.
Sometimes Always Never. Directed by Carl Hunter. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Starring Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Alice Lowe, Louis Healy, Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny. Opens October 4 in Toronto (Carlton Cinema), Ottawa, Edmonton, and Calgary; opens October 11 in Victoria, Saskatoon, and Regina; with more cities to be confirmed in the coming weeks.