By Drew Taylor | The Playlist March 17, 2014 at 5:06PM
For some reason South by Southwest was full of time travel movies this year, with the abysmal Ethan Hawke thriller "Predestination" (read our review here), a supposedly horrendous comedy "Premature" and a low-wattage Australian romantic comedy "The Infinite Man," which, coming out of the festival, might have been the best thing we saw all week. The movie is a delicate, intimate character piece about a man consumed with righting a failed relationship, and it plays out in brilliant, bedazzling ways. While some festival attendees might have been suffering from time travel fatigue, hopefully it didn't keep them from watching "The Infinite Man," an uncanny comedy that mixes the metaphysics of "Groundhog Day" with the emotionality of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and a splash of the tech-y nerdiness of "Primer." Comparing this film to those classics is kind of like carrying around a loaded gun, but it's apt just the same.
The movie starts out simply enough: Dean (Josh McConville) and his girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall) return to the seaside hotel where they spent their last anniversary. But things are different: the hotel is abandoned, taking on the eerie, post-apocalyptic vibe that most things in Australia kind of default to if left alone and unattended for long enough. Dean is some kind of tech wizard (we're not sure in what field exactly, but he's a brain), and is obsessed with making things just right. And even though the weekend isn't looking like it's going to pan out as planned, he has a fun activity for them to try: a system he's devised to record, in vivid detail, every happy moment that the trip will provide.
But right as Dean is about to record their bliss, Lana's pigheaded ex-boyfriend Terry (Alex Dimitriades) shows up and things really go to hell. Dean is befuddled by his presence and by Lana's interest in him ("Does he know, neuro-chemically, how to make you happy?" he wonders) and has an altercation with Terry that leaves him stunned (literally) and alone. From there, Dean isolates himself in the spooky hotel and starts to endeavor on his greatest invention: honest-to-god time travel. He eventually recruits Lana to go back to that exact moment when it all fell apart, to try to right the wrongs of that day. Things, somewhat predictably, go awry, with this weekend seemingly a space-time crossroads where multiple versions of himself are trying to intersect.
The entire middle section of the movie is a glorious clusterfuck, with multiple Deans running around and trying to set things straight. You'll be befuddled, but in a wonderful way, since each sequence is both confounding and full of tiny, emotionally buoyant reveals. Even if it doesn't totally make sense all the time, it will. And this "sense" might not be in a literal, by-the-books sense (those looking out for "Terminator"-style paradoxes will have a blast), but the emotional truth of the situation; time travel's metaphor punch is fully utilized, and that's really what's important. Eventually Dean starts to get jealous and insecure, fearing for what the other Deans are accomplishing that he isn't, and starts to spiral towards unhinged mania (there's lots of talk about closed and open loops and flashes of diagrams and circuit boards). Oh, and eventually there are two Terrys too.
As crazy and whacked-out as the plot of "The Infinite Man" gets, though, it still stays oddly grounded and relatable. This is partly because, as an audience surrogate, Marshall's Lana is so warm and agreeable. At one point she turns to Dean (one of the Deans, at least) and says, "You've lost me—I have no idea what the fuck is going on," and it's easy to sympathize. But she's also such a strong, smart, highly nuanced character that you can understand why he would want to muddle with the space-time continuum to try and be with her. When she has conversations with Dean, she's talking about how their relationship functioned, seemingly the one machine that Dean can't quite wrap his mind around, and these moments have a quiet, intense power that rival any of the mind-bending time travel stuff. McConville, for his part, has a whole lot of the movie resting on his shoulders and for him to bring the various incarnations of Dean to life with subtle variation, and to create a character who can be pretty unlikable, but that you still want to see succeed in his harebrained scheme, is pretty sublime. There's a deep well of sadness inside of Dean that is hopelessly identifiable.
Also, the movie is really, really funny. Writer/director/editor Hugh Sullivan, making his directorial debut (he had directed a handful of shorts before) didn't waste all of his mental energy trying to figure out the zigzagging timelines that crisscross through "The Infinite Man." Not only is the movie deeply felt but it's also so full of amazing jokes. You sometimes almost miss them because you're trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on in the movie's narrative. (My favorite joke? When Lana asks Dean what she's supposed to say to another Dean, he quips, with an air of sentimental severity: "Listen to your heart… Also listen to the earpiece and I'll tell you.") Just thinking about the complexity and nuance of the screenplay is enough to turn your head into confetti, especially given the fact that Sullivan pulled it off with an obscene amount of humor and heart. Sullivan was also able, in his capacity as a director and editor, to put it together in a way that is, if not initially clear, always reveals itself in time. There are little "tells" sprinkled throughout the movie that, when everything lines up and makes sense, you cannot believe you missed the first time. "The Infinite Man" is a constantly revelatory puzzle box that is an absolute joy to try and decode.
Every so often you see a movie at one of these festivals that seems to announce (loudly) a true filmmaking talent, one that should be watched closely in the years to come. "The Infinite Man" is one of those movies. While it clearly owes a debt to "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Groundhog Day" and "Primer" (not to mention the terrific "Lost" episode "The Constant"), it's also it's own beast altogether: a wildly creative, thrilling, unforgettable, heartbreaking work of a singular, visionary filmmaker. "The Infinite Man" is infinitely brilliant. [A]