There’s something painful about Dean. Cute, yes, by all means. Scruffy, also, as well as nerdy, Steve-Urkellian, and sweet — his run alone garners a continual snicker. But mostly there’s something painful about Dean, who is trying like hell to make things right with Lana.
More precisely, that cutely painful thing is a kind of teenage conviction so many shake before they move on to adulthood. It’s a familiar story, one that has the audience both cringing and laughing with and at him. Everyone’s tried really hard to undo some mistake at some unfortunate juncture. It’s an appallingly familiar sight to behold. Especially when, like many before him, he’s rolling on faith that the one that got away is the one. And while most of us eventually learn to accept an ending and move on, Dean’s juvenility has other plans in mind. In fact, he plans everything down to the minutest detail, and he figures he can plan his biggest mistake away, too, to regain that chance of lifelong love.
Set at a deserted Australian motel and involving only three players (as well as an ensemble of time-travelling doubles), The Infinite Man is a simultaneously simple and difficult tale, and a captivating love story. Faced with a seemingly life-altering romantic disaster, Dean, played by the impressive if compact Josh McConville, tries to do what he always does, if only out of desperation. Control, we learn, is his one coping mechanism, and he aims to tax it for all its worth here, breaking point not withstanding.
His plan is to get Lana (Hannah Marshall) back — using time travel (obviously). Following a meticulously planned anniversary weekend gone awry at the hands of a javelin-wielding ex-boyfriend, he spends the next couple of years of his life going back, and back, and back, convinced he can make things right, one Dean double at a time.
Though time travel often demands expectation of the messiest, awfullest worst, Hugh Sullivan’s debut feature-length effort is one smoothly cut time machine. Whereas Primer has taught us to expect headaches, hair-splitting logic, and, for some of us, an utter lack of a point, The Infinite Man delivers laudable clarity, fun, and a deceptively straightforward end in sight.
Sullivan’s work here is hysterically self-deprecating, but also slick and clever. With every new bit that Dean complicates, it’s deliberately clearer that the whole thing could have been a disaster. It’s laudable how far the film is from that understandable potential failure. Sullivan manages to keep the inevitable continuity checks and balances surprisingly breezy and harnesses that complexity for the long haul. While more recent “hard” sci-fi time travel films have tended to suggest that convolution is evidence of meaningful depth, and others have made little effort to cover up their dumb mess, Sullivan makes that foreseeable complication a matter of plot and character in The Infinite Man — a symptom of Dean’s denseness, the motor that moves the whole thing forward. An essential consequence of Dean’s maniacal solution to a problem likely solvable with a “sorry” and some flowers, is that all that time-altering scheming ends up as the ultimate punch line to his epic, self-defeating attempt at getting Lana back.
Time travel is damn complicated and only Dean would consider it a plan A, and not just some convenient reverie. The Infinite Man revolves around that controlling character flaw, points at it, and dares us to laugh it up as it plays out. Smoothly cut together from a series of overlapping sequences of events that likely melted a brain or two on set, it must have been painstaking to arrange all of it correctly. And all to present that flaw, Dean’s inability to do it any way but the hard way, center stage and demand we take it seriously as an angular but awfully sweet joke. It is a sharp, heartfelt and graceful ride, as successful as any time-travel picture since Back to the Future, which makes it easy to play along.
Of course, I’m not saying it’s perfect — i.e., it still involves, you know, time travel, and the inevitable mental math moments that precludes. But all that effort is betting there’s nothing quite as fetching as a goofy, gentle little nerd, whom many of us can recognize from the mirror, trying like hell to get his love back. And that bet, it seems, bares the load and pays off. In Dean there is a fragment of everyone’s lovesick puppy of yore and beyond, and it’s a matter of fact that audiences may find themselves wondering if that’s what they look like while running, crying or trying to amend their past. As an honest, relatable persuasion, it’s a fine prize to know that that goofy romantic is still somewhere inside us all, panting and dreaming away. Shoulda/coulda/woulda is an old, old pastime; it’s nice to see such a lovable dweeb try it out in real time.
— David Bradford