Hal Hartley has been making mordant, deadpan independent films (like "Trust" or "Simple Men") for so long and so successfully, no one could ever call him by the name of his new movie, which is "Amateur." Yet it's no pleasure to report that the film itself doesn't quite work.
"Amateur," which opens today at the Charles, is like a medical experiment of great ambition in which the scientific concept is brilliant but the patient dies. Hartley attempts to merge his trademark deadpan hip Long Island comedy of quirks with the swifter patterns of the conspiracy thriller. Yet the two are almost antithetical.
The first demands close attention to the warps of personality and motive, and, more than anything, space and time. It's slow comedy, working in less insistent rhythms than farce or slapstick, and it has to leave room for its audience to catch up to its (subtle) jokes. Thriller conventions, on the other hand, demand pace, darkness, combustion, vivid violence.
So the truth is, "Amateur" is a mess. It takes off from the most banal of thriller cliches -- the amnesiac who wakes up with no idea who he is, but who understands he's at the center of some dark conspiracy; he's pursued by a team of killers and the beautiful woman who claims to be his wife.
After picking himself up from the New York street (where he's been deposited at the end of a two-story fall meant to kill him but which only blanked out his mind), Thomas (Martin Donovan) bumbles into a coffee shop and meets a woman who would never ever be in a thriller -- but who would be commonplace in a Hal Hartley film. This is Isabelle Huppert as Isabelle, an ex-nun who believes she's on a mission from God; she just hasn't figured out what it is yet. At the same time, she's earnestly trying to make it as a porno writer, to the disgust of all who see her tap-tap-tapping away on a laptop with a copy of "Hot Letters to Penthouse" in her lap.
These two total dysfunctionals become involved in each other, and ultimately the deeper plot, which has them racing around trying to avoid destruction while at the same time hoping to achieve some answer to the question: What the hell is this all about?
The movie has odd, wonderful touches. I love the hitmen-accountant team, mixing the jargon of slaughter and deferred taxes. I love the hysterical New York policewoman in charge of helping amnesiacs when it's clear she can hardly tie her own shoes. I like the way Hartley, who knows nothing about action scenes, goes ahead and shoots them anyway, so that they acquire an odd quality of faux innocence and reality to them.
When the bad guy gets shot, for example, he's walking; the shooter walks with him and keeps plugging him. The sequence goes on and on and on; it's a brilliantly conceived little set piece, wholly original and unexpected.
But if you asked me why the bad guy is bad, I couldn't tell you. If you asked who was shooting him, I couldn't tell you that either. If you asked me why everybody's suddenly in Westchester, I'd have no idea. The movie just seems to stop making sense and becomes quite fey and cute but totally out of control.
But lots of times, you'll say, thrillers don't really make sense at the most practical narrative level. That's certainly true. But they only work if the nonsense is buried in visual pyrotechnics and drop-dead style, both of which Hartley either has no interest in or no budget for. So the movie remains odd and endearing, rather than gripping or commandeering; it's full of devilish touches and narrative lassitude. And I'm not even gonna start on Huppert's haircut!
Starring Isabelle Huppert and Martin Donovan
Directed by Hal Hartley
Released by Sony Classics
Unrated (Profanity, violence, sexual situations)