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‘James Vs. His Future Self’: A funny time-travel tale that’s serious about the science

Daniel Stern gives a moving performance as a crabby old physicist jumping back decades to prevent his past mistakes.

A young physicist (Jonas Chernick, left) is confronted by the man he will grow up to be (Daniel Stern) in “James Vs. His Future Self.”
Gravitas Ventures

When time travelers in the movies meet younger/older versions of themselves, it’s almost never a good thing, especially at first. Whether it’s Bruce Willis as Old Joe trying to convince Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Young Joe not to kill him in “Looper,” Bruce Willis as Grown-Up Russ connecting with Spencer Breslin as Young Rusty in “Disney’s The Kid” or Bruce Willis as Cole running through an airport while Joseph Melito as Young Cole looks on in “12 Monkeys,” one thing we can be sure of:

Bruce Willis sure has met himself in quite a few movies! Oh, and also: it’s always a bleep-show when characters meet themselves.

That’s certainly the case in the cerebral time-travel character study “James Vs. His Future Self,” in which a scraggly, intense and crabby old physicist (Daniel Stern) barges in from the future to confront his younger self (Jonas Chernick) and desperately tries to persuade Young James not to make the mistakes he’s already made — which is the kind of headache-inducing conundrum we always get in these movies, because how can Young James possibly alter a future that’s already set in stone, given the presence of Old James?

You want to go deeper into the weeds? Consider that whenever Young James actually does take an action that could alter the timeline, Old James’ memories change on the spot, to absorb the new information. So it’s as if Old James is always a step ahead of Young James, as he will instantly know whatever Young James has just done. Got it?

Good, cause I’m not sure I do — but thanks to director and co-writer Jeremy Lalonde taking the science seriously while adopting a comedic/dramatic tone not unlike “Back to the Future,” and a ferociously funny and genuinely moving performance by Daniel Stern as Old James, we’re usually too involved with the emotional stakes to get bogged down with the physics and questionable logic of all this madness.

Suffice to say the real mystery in “James Vs. His Future Self” is whether Young James will get his stuff together and make things right on the relationship front before it’s too late and he winds up a lonely old man who looks like he lives on the streets. (The 6-foot-4 Stern looks to be about six inches taller than Chernick, but that disparity is explained with a quick bit of a dialogue. Sort of.)

Old James and Young James despise one another for much of the story. Old James is enraged and frustrated by Young James’ ego and obstinacy, while Young James can’t believe he turned into such a bitter loser. Wake up, Young James! Listen to, um, yourself.

Cleopatra Coleman is luminous and endearing as Courtney, a colleague and friend of Young James who is about to take a job in Sweden and leave his life for good if he doesn’t step up and tell her how he really feels. Tommie-Amber Pirie is a hoot as Young James’ sister, who for 15 years has been trying to get him to scatter the remaining ashes of their parents, who were killed in a plane crash.

“James Vs. His Younger Self” is an evenly matched fight. We’re cheering for the old-timer to knock some sense into a young genius who is acting so dumb.