Review: Happy Accidents

As if the reality of the World Trade Center towers crumbling to bits wasn't surreal enough, imagine this scenario:

The first tower has just fallen. You're watching it happen live, slack-jawed and just as confused and horrified as every other person in America. As you watch the tower collapse and dark smoke swallows up the entire southern tip of Manhattan, someone comes in and discreetly turns the sound off on the TV. It's time for your pre-arranged advance screening of Happy Accidents, a movie that makes the most of straddling the line between science fiction and reality, and is set in New York City.

There's very little doubt that many, many years from now, the exact details of where we were and what we were doing on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, will still be seared into what's left of our brains. Me, I was watching Happy Accidents, something that would surely have been an almost entirely pleasurable experience had it not been for the sheer awfulness of what was taking place outside the movie theater. In the context of all that, looking up at a movie screen filled with casual background shots of the very same buildings and neighborhoods that were, at that very moment in the real world, covered in smoke and charred flesh, became something quite different. It was a little hard not to see the film as a tragedy.

And it's hard to get the real world — the new real world — out of our heads while watching Happy Accidents. The movie constantly teases us with what it paints as very fine lines between what is probably real and what is probably unreal, between what is possible and impossible. And as we now know, impossible has become one more word that, post-Sept. 11, will never again have the same meaning.

Happy Accidents is a bit like The Terminator played out as serious romantic-drama. It's about a sweet, sensitive guy named Sam (Vincent D'Onofrio) who's in love with complicated Ruby (Marisa Tomei). Ruby's a perpetual victim of all manner of bad relationships. Her past Significant Others have included junkies, Jesus freaks, fetishists, failed artists of every stripe and bug-eyed guys claiming to be alien abductees, so the slightly eccentric but utterly charming Sam appears to be Mr. Right at last — that is, until he matter-of-factly reveals to her one fine day that he's in fact a time-traveler from the year 2470, who's journeyed specifically to be with her.

The movie plays all of this in a loose, guileless, nearly verite fashion, so that we become quickly caught up in Ruby's story (as related to her girlfriends and therapist) of her relationship with a loving individual who also appears to be mentally ill. At the same time, writer/director Brad Anderson cleverly, skillfully strews the narrative with just enough seeds of doubt to encourage us to wonder if there's some possibility that Sam might actually be telling the truth. On top of this, D'Onofrio portrays Sam as such a credible, caring and sincere person, we wind up liking him enormously and, finally, like Ruby herself, are seduced into believing him.

Happy Accidents is deceptively simple in the best sense, in that it's a prime example of a popular entertainment that manages to be a lot of things to a lot of people, and all without compromising itself. The movie would have benefited from a trim of 15 minutes or so, but that's not a big deal. It all functions nicely in ways that we would expect to be distinct from each other but aren't: as a dramatic slice of life focusing on the romance between a needy but normal woman and her psychologically disturbed partner; as a sci-fi thriller about a man from the future who hurls himself across time in order to save the woman he loves; and as an enigmatic think-piece in which we're never quite sure where the truth lies.

Anderson's movie manipulates our shifting perceptions of reality in a way that would have been effective even if Sept. 11 had never happened and the word impossible still meant something. But the impossible is now the everyday. There's a growing consensus that safety does not exist, the world's tallest buildings can be made to collapse in an obscenely cinematic spectacle of destruction that puts the ending of Fight Club to shame — and our lives have changed as surely as did the Manhattan skyline. The future is here, like it or not. We may as well allow ourselves a few good movies to pass the time.