Anderson, a bright light among the new independents, may not have had much with which to work in the way of budget, but he wasn't handicapped by poverty of thought. This amiable romantic comedy is extremely clever (and hip) and puts to shame most of the plodding, self-conscious, poorly written films commonly upheld these days as coherent replies to Hollywood's soul-deadening caution. This guy could probably make a terrific film with $30 million, too.
His heroine is pretty Ruby Weaver (Marisa Tomei), a downtown type whose romantic résumé is darkened by failures: the narcissist, the bad drummer, the boozer, the gender-flopper. So when a pleasant-enough park-bench stranger named Sam Deed (Vincent D'Onofrio) starts paying special attention to her, she's understandably gun-shy -- or rather, man-shy. Little does our Ruby know what emotional adventures await her. She may have fetishists and junkies in her back pages, but she's dated no one as bizarre as Sam. In the beginning he's simply a little weird -- obviously fluent in half a dozen languages but unable to come up with the English word for wine; bold in his advances and easy in his charm but seemingly taken with old polka records and scared stiff of little dogs. For the first 20 minutes we too are kept guessing. What's with this guy? And where's this movie headed?
Not to worry. Once Sam's outlandish story is out of the bag, Happy Accidents quickly picks up steam, and we are as intrigued as Ruby with the possibility -- the possibility -- that he really is a "back traveler" from the 25th Century, a time when, thanks to geologic and ecological disasters, Dubuque is on the Atlantic Coast and the majority "gene dupes" fight pitched battles with small bands of "anachronists" over "nostalgia rights."
Will Ruby come to believe this stuff? Or will she play along while paying closer attention to her psychotherapist (Holland Taylor), who speculates that Sam is suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy, a disorienting (but creative) major glitch that also afflicted geniuses such as Dostoyevsky and van Gogh. Or will she heed her friend Gretchen (Nadia Dajani), who sees Sam's entire fantasy as a bit of kinky game-playing? While Ruby weighs the evidence, Anderson has all kinds of fun with Sam's apparent near misses regarding reality in the late 20th Century (Accidents was filmed in 1999) and his alleged insights into the future. On his best behavior for dinner at the house of Ruby's parents, he bites into an asparagus spear and comments: "Lillian, these are great pickles." A bit later he explains that, in the 23rd Century, scientists confirmed the existence of God -- several gods, actually -- using something called a "telepathy scope."
"He's a freak," Ruby tells Gretchen, "but he tells a good story." Still she's not so sure it's all fiction, and neither are we. Thus we are drawn not only into a romantic mystery but also into an intriguing (and nicely understated) tug of war between faith and science.
D'Onofrio and Tomei create good chemistry. Ruby's impatient, semistreetwise Manhattan attitudes are tempered by her romantic inclinations. Sam's dumbbell questions ("What is this stuff?" he asks about a marijuana joint) can have great charm; a moment later he sounds like either a scientific genius or a raving lunatic when he starts expounding on the laws of the universe. Together they make for a fun couple -- really -- and when it comes time to resolve Sam's mystery, his origins don't really matter. We like him pretty well in any time frame or any state of mind. Who wouldn't like a guy who, smashed on shots of bourbon, keeps shouting at the bartender for "another merlot"? Fortunately we come to care for Ruby as well. After all, she's endured bad relationships with a Jew for Jesus and a preening Frenchman. Doesn't she deserve another chance -- even if it's with a guy who just might be almost 500 years her junior?