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A review of "Fetching Cody" (2005)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Fetching Cody is the best kind of low-budget independent film.  It's rough-around-the-edges presentation loses some technical marks, but it makes up for it with an intriguing premise, interesting characters, and excellent comic timing.  That last one is especially important and unexpected considering this is a film about a drug addict spiraling helplessly into death.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Art (Jay Baruchel) is a small-time drug dealer and homeless guy who lives in the slums of a nameless city.  He has few prospects, but he is madly in love with Cody (Sarah Lind), an addict who left her upper middle class family in the suburbs for reasons unknown.

One night, Cody collapses and goes into a coma, doomed to die.  Art has a difficult time accepting this - especially because he managed to quit drugs specifically because Cody asked him to and he feels indebted to her.  He commiserates with one of his few friends, Harvey (Jim Byrnes), a quirky older guy who has access to a warehouse where stores a bunch of junk.  One of Harvey's recent acquisitions is a bizarre easy chair strung up with Christmas lights - or, as Harvey calls it, a "machine to travel through space and time."

Art doesn't believe him, but then he sits in the chair and inadvertently starts to travel.  Realizing that he has this power in his grasp, he tries to go back to early moments in Cody's life to figure out where things went wrong for her so he can break her addiction and save her life.

Writing anything other than that is technically a spoiler, so I won't get too much more into the plot.  But there's a few things I want to mention that are especially wonderful about this movie.

First of all, I loved the characterization of Art and Cody.  They are down on their luck, but they're not monsters.  The film actually opens with an innocent bike ride through the city, giving you the impression that they're just a couple of young and carefree lovers.  It isn't until maybe five or ten minutes in that the film clearly tells you that they've got demons.

It's a refreshing take.  Many films seem hell-bent on portraying addicts as total losers or even villains.  Even when movies are sympathetic to addicts, they'll still show the life as being one of endless pain and horror.  But that's not realistic.  If drugs had no high points, then people wouldn't do them in the first place.  It's totally possible to condemn drug abuse even as you build a sympathetic character who otherwise seems normal - and I'd argue that your film (and message) is much stronger for it.

But the thing I liked even more about this movie is its comedy.  It's the kind of funny movie that sneaks up on you - you don't really expect to be laughing very much when you hear the premise.  But FC wants you to laugh.  Art is a goofball and kind of a short-sighted whack-a-doo; his attempts to fix things are never well-planned, but he has enough charisma and energy to try and try again that you can't help but love him.

Consider his first time traveling adventure.  He learned that Cody was bullied in school and decides he wants to help her out.  When he goes back in time to a particularly low moment for her, he finds out that she got her period in gym class and the other girl's laughed at her.  Cody's solution?  "Oh... she needs tampons.  On it!"

Never does he think to comfort her, or warn her, or support her.  He's so obsessed with the fact that Cody needed a tampon at that moment that he doesn't even think to go back in time to before her gym class and speak to her.  The nadir of this moment is when he approaches her in front of the other girls and hands her the tampon outright.

Ordinarily I would say that having a complete idiot for a protagonist is a bad thing, but in Art's case, it leads to some pretty damn funny stuff.  It's important, too, because a movie about subject matter this devastating needs levity.

The Part Where I Talk About At-Will Time Travel

I've got a soft spot for time travel movies, and that spot is especially soft for movies that feature at-will travel.  When you have somebody go back in time and things get screwed up, like in Back to the Future, you often end up with a good movie - but the thing that always frustrates me is that the filmmakers introduce this amazing new technology and find contrivances to prevent the protagonist(s) from using it again.

I guess it boils down to the fact that all time travel movies are, at heart, metaphors for change.  Whether it's a cynical and pessimistic assertion that change is impossible (12 Monkeys), or a sparkling, perhaps even naive belief that minor, easy changes will lead to incredible consequences (X-Men: Days of Future Past), or a meditation on the irony that a struggle for change may only seek to clinch the very thing you are trying to avoid (Donnie Darko), time travel is always about the nature of change.

So I guess it kind of annoys me when the vehicle of change - a time machine or time traveling ability - is immediately shunned or ignored. It seems like such a waste of a premise and kind of a halfhearted effort, even when the resulting film is still good or even great.

To put it in other words: when you have a time machine and you stop to ask, "Gee, how can I fix this situation?", I always want to slap you in the face and remind you that you have a fucking time machine.

I love movies like Fetching Cody where the protagonist realizes this and has no qualms about trying multiple times to do the same thing.  It's a more accurate representation of people for one thing, but it also gives you a chance to be more clever with your conflict.  I'd liken it to the difference between something like a lesser Friday the 13th and The Thing.  In the former, the protagonists die because they're foolish and bumble into clearly dangerous situations.  In the latter, the protagonists are all competent and capable, so the filmmakers have to come up with more serious and terrifying threats to pick 'em off.

The Bit Where I Compare it to The Butterfly Effect

Speaking of at-will time travel movies....

For a long time, I was a defender of The Butterfly Effect for this exact reason.  That's another story where the filmmakers play around with the idea of recursion and time travel rather than simply shrugging and saying, "Welp, guess that didn't work."  I enjoyed the back-and-forth of the film despite the outrageous (and, frankly, stupid) consequences of Ashton Kutcher's actions.

The problem is that TBE has some serious characterization problems.  Although the actual story itself is entertaining from the most basic perspective, I'll freely admit that it never really connects in a meaningful way.  For a pretty good (and hilarious) summary of this, check out the We Hate Movies episode on TBE.  One of their best episodes.

I still kind of like TBE despite its flaws, but now that I've seen Fetching Cody, there's really not enough of a reason to revisit the former.  They both have generally the same plot, but FC is a more mature and believable representation of these types of characters.

Unlike Amy Smart's character, Cody is not a precious flower who bends effortlessly to the whims of the world.  She's not so easily molded that minor moments in the past forever impact her in the present.  She is a complicated and stubborn woman who is the sum of many thousands of moments that have worked together to make her what she is.

For that matter, all the characters are like that in FC.  The real problem with TBE is that it was called "The Butterfly Effect," when in fact the titular effect is never really explored.  You could've called it almost anything else and it would have made more sense.  FC takes the same kind of approach where they ignore the idea of unexpected consequences for the sake of a nuanced approach to change.  Change is difficult.  Change is slow.  Change requires persistent effort and sometimes repetitive effort.

(Spoiler) In both films, the ending requires that the protagonist sever his initial relationship with his love interest, believing that her fate was ultimately sealed the moment they met.  And in both cases, the protagonist is far too rash; if Art was a little more patient, there's a chance he could have made real change in both of their lives.  But as it was, he kept looking for the easy solution, despite the warning given to him by Harvey.  The result is that he went nuclear on his mission and gave up his relationship with Cody entirely.  Similarly, TBE has a weak ending because Kutcher's protagonist never thinks to try something effective - he always panics and goes for instant gratification, like killing somebody or confronting somebody, rather than calling the police and getting a social worker involved.

It almost seems like the filmmakers saw TBE and realized, "Wow, that needed a second draft."  So they went back and redid it.  The result is a much more satisfying film even though the production value is lower.

A Brief Tangent About Guessing the Ending (Spoilers)

So, here's a thing.  I've occasionally bitched here and there on this blog about how I hate reading other people's opinions before I see a movie because it colors my expectations.  Usually this is a matter of thinking a movie will be great and then being let down, so I avoid reviews to avoid being set up for disappointment.

But sometimes people color my expectations in other ways.  For example, setting me up for an ending that doesn't happen.  Which is exactly what happened here.

Before I watched the movie, I read snippets here and there moaning about the ending.  Comments on Netflix, IMDb user reviews / message boards, Amazon reviews, whatever.  The complaint was that the majority of the film was well done, but the ending was terribly depressing and out of left field.

Naturally, I spent the first hour of the film guessing at what the tragic ending was going to be.  My first guess was they were going to reveal that Art wasn't actually traveling through time at all - that he was just getting high over and over again as a way of coping with Cody's condition, and that the idea of time travel was a metaphor for his refusal to face reality and accept the pain of loss. This seemed a natural conclusion given that so much of the movie was about how change is a difficult and gradual process.  And on a thematic level, it works well - it could even end up being a bittersweet ending where Art kicks his habit, thus conquering not only the demon of addiction, but also the demon of depression.

Then the movie made a point that Art already gave up drugs, and I was thinking, "Wow, that's even more tragic.  It's going to reveal that he's had this terrible relapse.  Maybe it's going to end with him not giving up the drugs, and actually Cody dies and he just keeps spiraling downward because he thinks he can save her by getting high over and over again.  What a bleak way to go."

And then the movie kept going and hinting that Art's travels were completely legit, so I thought, "Okay, if he actually is time traveling and he's not learning his lesson about accepting loss or the difficulty of change.  So maybe the ending is going to be a horrible dickslap to point out just how bad things can get if you don't leave them alone.  So when Art calls the past police on his past self, and then his past self gets arrested for dealing, maybe he saves Cody in one sense but ends up screwing himself over really badly.  Maybe his arrest at that part of his life causes him to go to prison for a terribly long time, and while in prison he gets access to even more drugs and becomes more hopelessly addicted, and since he doesn't meet Cody in this timeline, he never kicks his habit (since he mentioned that the only reason he stopped using was for Cody), so when he returns to the future, he's a miserable wreck who's near death.  And maybe, even after all that, Cody still turns into an addict and dies because she just got her drugs from somebody else.  How bleak would that be?  That sounds awful."

Suddenly I was picturing the most nightmarish twist ending in the world and I wasn't even sure if I wanted to watch it anymore.  But it's a short movie, so of course I watched the whole thing.

And you know how it ends?  The big, horrible, shocking, depressing thing that made a lot of people complain to the Internet?

Ahem.  Art and Cody do not end up together.  Art successfully stops them from having met for the first time, which means that Cody never gets addicted in the first place, which means that she lives, but it also means that they are total strangers to one another int he present.

In other words... it's a generally redemptive ending.  In fact, compared to what I was expecting, it's downright joyous.

The Internet can be so stupid sometimes.  I really oughta stop trusting it.

Where You Can Watch

Fetching Cody is currently streaming on Netflix.