A tricky proposition in life, time travel is a breeze in cinema: Just run the film backward. Opening with such reverse spoolery, Brad Anderson’s Happy Accidents is the mothballed transition between his singletonian Next Stop Wonderland and current Shining moment, Session 9. A tech-free bit of science fiction that’s inside-baseball enough to reference Blinovitch (a minor Dr. Who character), it posits love as the ghost in the (time) machine while periodically panning over still photos in a nod to La Jetée.
Sam Deed (Vincent D’Onofrio) hails from the Atlantic Coast of Dubuque, Iowa, circa 2470; he back-travels to 1999 New York to protect Ruby Weaver (Marisa Tomei) from a fatal accident he doesn’t want to describe. His loopy alibi has her wondering if he’s innocuous manchild, manipulative cad, psycho killer, or sincere century-straddler. Her therapist (Holland Taylor) diagnoses temporal lobe epilepsy to explain both his blackouts and the elaborate narrative apparatus he employs to either deflect queries or justify his oddness. For love’s old sweet song is loss, and his sister’s accidental drowning may have triggered the rescue ritual he enacts with Ruby.
All but the greenest Gothamite will discern the meaning of the mysterious name “Chrystie Delancey” long before the climax, but the movie stays afloat all the same. Tomei is in nearly every scene, kicking off her mornings à la Stuart Smalley, commiserating with her ya-ya sisterhood, and going cutely ballistic every 10 minutes; she’s better than her somewhat implausible codependent role. As the bedraggled man out of time, D’Onofrio mixes edgy sweetness and deadpan exposition (“Most people were corporate-sponsored gene dupes,” he says of the hostile 25th century). The leads smooth over the plot holes endemic to all 4D fables, making the movie more than mere déjà vu.
Equipped with its own recursive system, Maybe Baby courts structural rather than temporal vertigo, and proves infertile in more ways than one. Sam Bell (Hugh Laurie) is “one of the BBC’s most senior lunch-eaters,” a producer-type with incurable writer’s block. He and wife Lucy (Joely Richardson) want a child, but after well-researched attempts fail, they enter the purgatory of fertilization treatments. Frustration breeds eureka: Sam secretly recounts their ordeal in a screenplay. (Meanwhile, she dallies with a sonnet-spouting Corey Hart clone who snags the Sam role in the movie-within-a-movie.)
Like Chekhov’s bit about the gun going off, a diary in the first reel means perusal by a third party later on. Here, Sam raids his spouse’s journal intime to bolster the female voice in his story, lifting entire sentences intact for convenient future identification. As the BBC team enacts his script, their fulsome praise essentially rewrites very recent history, as if to convince the viewer that the film’s first half—Sam and Lucy’s real-life travails—was a veritable masterpiece. (“This is fantastic,” says the hobbity auteur. “It’s dark. It’s dramatic.”) The only welcome repetition is a Macca take on the Buddy Holly chestnut, bookending Maybe Baby with the sheer inspiration it can’t otherwise conceive.