I’ve lost track of how we’re supposed to react to Bob Odenkirk as a screen presence. After all the obsessive rewatches of Mr. Show DVD sets in my college years I’m trained to receive Odenkirk as a sight gag, where his very presence is meant to read as a joke. Given the barely stifled laughter that echoed his titular line reading of “My little women!” in my theater screening of Gerwig’s Little Women, I assume I’m not the only one who reacts to him that way. Bob Odenkirk is synonymous with sketch comedy in my mind, making any scene he’s in inherently feel like a bit. What’s confusing about that association is that Odenkirk has been much busier and more widely popular in recent years in a medium I know very little about: Prestige Television. His roles on shows like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and Fargo appear to be occasionally comedic in the way most TV dramas dabble in dark humor from time to time, but for the most part they’re played straight. Bob Odenkirk is just as much of a legitimate actor now as he was a visual punchline in the past, and it’s up to the audience’s personal familiarity with specific pockets of his work to determine how he’s going to register onscreen (the same way I can’t watch Toby Huss in a serious dramatic role without first thinking of Artie, The Strongest Man in the World for at least a half-second).
That muddled screen persona makes for an initially confusing experience in Odenkirk’s post-John Wick action vehicle Nobody. At first glance, it’s absolutely absurd that Odenkirk would be starring in any kind of action movie at all, much less one styled after the bone-crunching ultraviolence of John Wick. You’re not immediately invited to laugh at that casting choice, though, since Nobody plays its John Wick in the Suburbs premise entirely straight. Odenkirk plays a self-identified “nobody”: a suburban dad with severe home invasion anxieties and an exponentially distanced relationship with his nuclear family, who’re bored by his stability. The only early wink towards the absurdism of Odenkirk’s casting is in the brutality of its close-quarters violence. Once a bloodlust is awakened in the milquetoast suburban dad, he over-commits to his role as a macho protector, and it’s absolutely bizarre to see Odenkirk smashing windows and crushing throats as if he were a retired, middle-age Rambo. As that violence escalates and the suburban-America nobody’s list of enemies grows to include the entire Russian mafia, it’s clear that this is very much an intentional action-comedy; it’s just one that’s incredibly patient in paying off the set-up to the punchline. Odenkirk starts the film in his Prestige TV Drama mode but by the end he’s a full-on sketch comedy player.
I had a lot of fun with Nobody once it fully sketched out what it’s doing. Based on its marketing (and the involvement of producer David Leitch), I expected it to be a fish-out-of-water action comedy about suburban dad stumbling into a John Wick plot. By the end, I was more convinced it was a direct parody of every post-Taken Liam Neeson thriller about a dad on the verge. All the signs were there if I had known to look for them. My borrowed library DVD started with a Liam Neeson trailer; Odenkirk grimly refers to his secretive military past, hinting at a “very particular set of skills” that could be deployed to save his family; he breaks into thieves’ apartment to retrieve his daughter’s beloved kittycat bracelet instead of, you know, his entire daughter; etc. The opening montage is even a direct spoof of the morning-routine sequence from The Commuter (aka Taken on a Train, not to be confused with Non-Stop, aka Taken on a Plane). The only way the Neeson spoofing could’ve been more obvious is if Odenkirk were speaking in a gravelly Irish accent, and I still didn’t catch onto what it was doing until about halfway into the runtime. Nobody is a Mr. Show level parody of the post-Taken dad thriller; it just doesn’t make that satirical target immediately apparent.
The tonal confusion of what eventually turns out to be an over-the-top action comedy here feels both purposeful and effective. Odenkirk’s mid-life macho fantasy of being an untapped protector of his household just waiting for a threat to quash is already funny enough when it’s played straight in the opening act. Watching that fantasy meet the harsh reality of a suburban dad bod being pummeled by Russian mobsters mid-film is even funnier. Then, the whole thing farcically escalates into live-action cartoon mayhem by the finale, boldly underlining the absurdism of its premise to the point where it’s unignorable. If I were more confident on where Odenkirk is in his acting career (basically, if I watched more cable TV dramas) I might’ve caught onto that parodic sense of humor a lot sooner, but it took me a minute to get my footing on the film’s tone. In retrospect, that makes it the perfect Bob Odenkirk vehicle despite the unlikeliness of its genre: a comedy where you’re not initially sure whether you’re supposed to treat the actor as a joke but it’s funny either way.