The Japanese ensemble has a blast portraying unwitting time travelers trying to figure out why their lives are skipping backward like a broken record. Mikoto and another waitress, Chino (Saori), are standouts as they explain to two hot-pot munching visitors why their rice is never ending, as is a stressed-and-stumped serial novelist who reacts with particular glee when realizing his deadline is now nonsense. “River” enjoys being a wacky sitcom(ish) crowd-pleaser about an implausible scenario that refuses to directly address the gravity of events, which always works for the better. Time itself could be folding in on the universe, and all one chef can think about is what happens when he defecates before rewinding — you know, the real issues.
A carefree attitude and coolness under pressure make “River” an exceptional treasure. Makoto Ueda’s screenplay has the purest heart, able to deliver themes about feeling stuck in place versus not fearing the future without heaping the formidable weight of universal fragility upon viewers. There are times when “River” can feel like an episode of CW’s “Legends of Tomorrow” blended with NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” not without the slapstick humor of exaggerated Japanese comedy styles. Where some films of this ilk would desire to showcase how human impulses would turn sour when consequences are erased, “River” believes in wholesomeness that warms the soul like hot sake.
Yamaguchi deserves all the credit imaginable because whenever “River” might appear to lose command of its gimmick, something pulls our attention as tight as ever. It’s a miraculous little project that showcases the power of storytelling in independent formats. Whatever hiccups may occur in this eightish fly-by comedy are minimal, overshadowed by the unstoppably enjoyable time-loop antics in Fujiya. Yamaguchi ups his game from camera direction that follows characters in long takes to concise narrative delivery, besting “Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes” easily. “River” is the mark of a filmmaker who’s no one-trick anything — it’s a sublime temporal comedy that audiences should not miss.
/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10