Watching life pass by while stuck behind the desk at an anonymous office job would make anyone long for some intrigue and mystery to enter the picture. And that’s just what happens to the title character of the Toronto-set The Death (and Life) of Carl Naardlinger – a gloomy IT specialist who finds out on his birthday that another man in the city with the exact same name has gone missing. This drives Carl on a quest to find out who the other Carl really was and where he’s gone, leading to a series of strange coincidences with an oddball assortment of characters in an obsessive attempt to find meaning in it all.
Debut feature director Katherine Schlemmer has fun turning Toronto into a metaphysical playground, much like Daniel Cockburn’s similarly themed 2011 film You Are Here, laying the city out as a labyrinth for any number of absurdist situations. As Carl’s journey to find other Carl takes him from the yuppie haven of Liberty Village to the lush Rosedale Ravine where he was last seen, Schlemmer takes advantage of the diverse urban landscape and contrasts between the man-made and natural environments. And whether it’s by trees or condo buildings, Carl is always suitably dwarfed by his surroundings. It’s nice to see the city so pleasurably off-kilter.
But where You Are Here was deliberately esoteric and committed to probing its existential quandaries, Naardlinger is instead after a looser, broader kind of comedy vibe. Every character around Carl is a cartoon, from his chipper real-estate agent wife to the dour baker roommates of missing Carl to the fake-bird salesman who looks exactly like missing Carl. The plot sees all these people bounce from one exaggerated encounter to the next, all pitched for maximum comedic value but ultimately becoming somewhat exhausting. By the end, the point of all this zaniness gets lost.
To be fair, this is an existential film so the point may just be that there is no point. I’m not sure that Carl Naardlinger is the best guy to lead us through this exercise though. As played by Matt Baram, Carl is like Dilbert without the sardonic quips, increasingly becoming duller and, frankly, more annoying as the story stretches on. It’s hard to glean much emotional resonance for his “problems”, especially when he’s able to afford a trendy house in this city and has so much free time to spend looking for a dude he’s never met (okay, that might just be my local prejudice).
By veering the story into silly mid-life crisis comedy territory, Schlemmer sidesteps a lot of the interesting ideas she raises about identity and cosmic connections that could have left viewers pondering its idiosyncrasies for days after. Instead, all I can think about is how I can’t get the name Carl Naardlinger out of my head.
- Release Date: 7/13/2018