In Brad Anderson’s Happy Accidents, Ruby Weaver (Marisa Tomei) is working her way through Dr. Laura’s Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives. Ruby’s main problem, according to her shrink (Holland Taylor), is that she’s a classic “enabler.” Meanwhile, Ruby and her friends commiserate over their man problems, relegating pictures of discarded boyfriends to a shoebox labeled “The Ex Files.”
When Ruby meets Sam Deed (Vincent D’Onofrio) on a bench in New York’s Central Park, he seems like the answer to the prayers of a woman unlucky in love: sensitive, level-headed, funny, handsome. Ruby reminds herself to go slow, get to know him before doing anything rash—then invites him to move in at the end of their first week.
Before long, Ruby begins to worry that Sam may top all the previous losers in her life, even the guy who claimed to be an alien abductee. At first it’s just little things. He stops and marvels at the most trivial sights, sounds and smells. He spaces out occasionally, staring blankly and saying nothing. He’s terrified of dogs, almost as if he’s never seen one before.
But when Ruby confronts him with something she finds in one of his sketchbooks, it prompts a confession from Sam unlike anything she’s heard before, and she thinks she’s heard it all. Sam claims to be a time traveler—a “back-traveler,” he calls it—from the year 2470. He lived (or, um, will live, one day) in Dubuque, Iowa, “on the Atlantic coast” ever since the polar icecaps melted during the 24th century. He came back in time, he says, because he fell in love with an ancient photograph of Ruby and felt they were meant to be together.
In a way, Anderson’s film is the victim of terrible timing. The phrase “happy accidents” defines “serendipity,” and damned if there isn’t a movie out there right now called Serendipity, about a couple (John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale) who may or may not be destined for each other. And coming soon is another movie called K-Pax, in which Kevin Spacey (punning on his own name) may or may not be an alien from another galaxy. In a decidedly non-serendipitous real-life twist, Happy Accidents combines themes of those two movies, paraphrases the title of one, and arrives in theaters right smack between them.
It would be a shame if those other films, graced with huge promotional budgets and studded with A-list actors, wind up upstaging the modest virtues of Happy Accidents. Anderson’s theme is trust in relationships.
The question of whether or not Sam is really from the future is almost irrelevant, except in a utilitarian, plot-driven way, and the way Anderson resolves the plot is the only unsatisfactory thing about his slangy, light-fingered script. The jittery dance of give-and-take that goes on between Ruby and Sam, as she boils over at each new revelation in his character and he reveals more about himself—or adjusts his story to fit the new situation—is what the film is really about.
Marisa Tomei has taken a lot of abuse since her surprise Oscar for My Cousin Vinny in 1992. She’s an actress, not a movie star, and the Oscar almost destroyed her career by pricing her out of the class in which she works best: supporting roles in star vehicles like the Mel Gibson comedy What Women Want and leads in low-budget indies like this. Freed of the pressure of supporting a humdrum script and a big promotional budget, Tomei responds to Ruby’s human dimensions with some of her best work.
Tomei also responds to the opportunity of working with Vincent D’Onofrio, one of the most interesting and unpredictable actors in movies. D’Onofrio keeps us wondering whether Sam is a real time-traveler, a delusional psychotic or just an elaborate sexual game-player, even as we see the ardent sensitivity that draws Ruby to Sam in spite of everything.
To Anderson’s credit, his ending—which manages somehow to be surprising, expected and anticlimactic all at once—isn’t the point. The goofball plot of Happy Accidents is only a device for taking an unconventional look at places in love and life where we’ve all been at one time or another.