Bill Nighy, that marvelous, at-right-angles actor, has had something of an at-right-angles career. The role where he’s been seen by the most people, Davy Jones, in a couple of “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, has his face covered with CGI tentacles. It’s true that acting, unlike stardom, aspires to a condition of anonymity, but that’s taking things a bit too far. Nighy has a knack for that.
Tall and blade-lean, he has deep-set, alert eyes. They give him the look of a suspicious hawk, ever ready to pounce. He’s sardonic in manner the way a bird is feathered in covering. It’s a form of plumage that helps keep him airborne — the movies he’s in, too. That’s certainly the case with “Sometimes Always Never,” which starts streaming June 12 via the Coolidge Corner’s Virtual Screening Room.
Nighy plays Alan, who’s obsessed with Scrabble and the son who walked out the door years ago, in the middle of a game, never to return. Alan is a tailor, fussy and precise, and the film’s title comes from tailoring. The classic rule for the wearer of a three-button jacket is sometimes fasten the top button, always fasten the middle one, and never the bottom one. Maybe it’s a rule for life, too.
Sam Riley (the “Maleficent” movies) plays Peter, the son who stayed. He’s never been able to get over his father’s not getting over it. Even when Peter has a home of his own, with a wife and son (Alice Lowe and Louis Healy), he still has to live with his father emotionally. An unexpected prolonged visit from Alan reminds us of that. It’s so weird it makes perfect sense, and the sight of Nighy in a bunk bed is . . . memorable.
“Obviously, the circumstances could be better,” Alan says to Peter early in the movie. “But how often do we get to enjoy each other’s company?” “Circumstances” is as elastic in meaning here as “enjoy” is not. If the irony were any less deadpan weeping would ensue. Instead, the line is very funny.
Carl Hunter, the director, likes visual dislocation. The movie opens with Nighy standing on a beach at low tide — holding an open umbrella — on a day with no rain. Consider ourselves warned. Shots often leave out a horizon line. Driving scenes are done as process shots — that is, the actors sit in a car that’s been filmed against a background of moving traffic. Once standard cinematic practice, it now just looks strange.
The biggest dislocation of all is neither intended nor fortunate. The best-reviewed movie of 2020 has probably been the abortion drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.” The very different “Sometimes Always Never,” which came out in England two years ago, is likely to be confused with it.
This extremely dry film mixes humor and melancholy to distinctive, if muffled, effect. Take away the muffled part, and that’s very Nighy, too. In being winningly understated and sometimes maddeningly stylized, “Sometimes Always Never” is a bit like Alan. He’s someone tidy in gesture and antic in opinion, not that he considers it in any way antic. He’s the sort of person who’s always causing awkward pauses without realizing they’re awkward or even pauses. That’s in the nature of being at right angles. It’s always the rest of the world that’s out of alignment, isn’t it?
SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER
Directed by Carl Hunter. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Starring Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Alice Lowe, Louis Healy. Streaming via the Coolidge Corner’s Virtual Screening Room, coolidge.org. 91 minutes. PG-13.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.