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Someone once told me that time is the theme of all great narrative art—a provocative thesis that’s hard to dispute. Think about it: Marcel Proust’s seven-volume evocation of the past, James Joyce’s scrupulously depicted Bloomsday, Orson Welles’ time-tripping biography of Charles Foster Kane, Alain Resnais’ conflations of past and present in Night and Fog, Muriel, Je t’aime, Je t’aime, and Providence.

Writer-editor-director Brad Anderson’s Happy Accidents falls considerably short of greatness, but in it he addresses and intermittently offers some intriguing insights into the workings of time. Anderson’s opening shot, run backward and then forward, alerts us that, like Christopher Nolan in Memento and Following, he intends to play games with chronology. Then he throws us a curve by setting up what appears to be a rather conventional romantic comedy reminiscent of his breakthrough feature, Next Stop Wonderland.

Marisa Tomei plays Ruby Weaver, a lovelorn Manhattanite with a history of unfulfilling codependent relationships with egotists and losers. (She and her disenchanted girlfriends deposit photographs of their dumped boyfriends in a box labeled “Ex-Files.”) While despairing that she will never find a suitable mate, she accidentally bumps into Sam Deed (Vincent D’Onofrio), a good-natured, slightly square hospice nurse recently arrived from Dubuque, Iowa. He swipes her copy of Anaïs Nin’s erotic Delta of Venus as an excuse to show up at her apartment to return the book. After a whirlwind courtship, he moves in with her.

Ruby soon observes some disquieting things about Sam. He’s terrified of miniature dogs, compulsively fills sketchbooks with drawings of a woman named Chrystie Delancey (an allusion that should not escape New Yorkers), and has a bar code tattooed on his arm. She consults her therapist (Holland Taylor), who suspects that Sam might be afflicted with temporal lobe epilepsy and insists on a private session with him. Questioning Sam about his behavior, Ruby elicits an unsettling answer. Sam claims that he’s a time traveler who has voyaged from the year 2470 after seeing a photograph of her face.

With that revelation, Anderson exposes his inspiration—French filmmaker Chris Marker’s extraordinary 1962 featurette La Jetée, which the late Pauline Kael deemed “the greatest science-fiction movie I’ve ever seen.” Composed almost entirely of black-and-white still photographs, Marker’s poetic film, about a man who voyages through time haunted by the face of a woman he glimpsed when he was a child, has served as the source of several subsequent movies, including The Terminator, Back to the Future Part II, and 12 Monkeys.

Uncertain whether Sam is who he says he is or a dangerous madman, Ruby is further alarmed when he informs her that she’s destined to die the following day. Together, they attempt to escape what Sam calls “the causal loop,” hoping that their love will prove strong enough to defy fate.

An oddball mixture of romantic comedy and sci-fi, Happy Accidents can’t be accused of playing it safe. Struggling to combine two seemingly incompatible genres, much as Ridley Scott did when he merged film noir and science fiction in Blade Runner, Anderson devotes too much time to setting up his offbeat premise. But when the film’s disparate elements finally mesh, the result is both charming and compelling, especially in the memorable closing shot that pays homage to Marker.

Tomei pulls out all stops in a performance that is sometimes grating but ultimately satisfying. Her shrill voice makes her frequent obscenity-sprinkled shouting hard to take, and at times she’s unflatteringly photographed, but her commitment to Ruby pays off in the movie’s tense climax. D’Onofrio’s unconventional looks and eccentric delivery of dialogue provide an effective foil, leaving us as uncertain as Ruby about his sanity. An Emmy-winning regular on television’s The Practice, Taylor, who stole her scenes in Anderson’s Next Stop Wonderland, scores again as Ruby’s enigmatic shrink. (With enameled makeup masking her lined skin, Taylor suggests what Joan Rivers might now look like if she weren’t addicted to cosmetic surgery.) Tovah Feldshuh is a bit too smirky in her cameo as Ruby’s worldly-wise mother, but Nadia Dajani enlivens her largely functional role as the heroine’s confidante. Erstwhile Brat Packer Anthony Michael Hall has fun spoofing himself in a downtown-art-gallery sequence.

Terry Stacey’s undistinguished photography betrays Anderson’s skimpy budget, especially in the clumsy handheld camerawork that mars the movie’s opening reels, and the filmmaker’s patchy editing suggests that he lacked sufficient funds to plug some gaps in his narrative. Nevertheless, Happy Accidents’ intelligence compensates for its formal shortcomings. At their first meeting, Sam tells Ruby, “Your heart is like a clock, measuring time.” Anderson’s assertion that our emotions affect our perception of time is unwittingly validated by the experience of watching his film, which drags in its early expository scenes, then races as it approaches its touching denouement. CP