Depressed teen meets ex-con, falls in love.
Is there anything worse than a joke retold by someone who doesn't get it?
In 1989, Hal Hartley wrote, produced and directed his first feature-length film on a half-shoestring budget. Though not widely screened, "The Unbelievable Truth" was hailed by critics as a clever little picture, a wry, keen black comedy that mocked both human nature and itself with unerring wit and freshness of technique.
I don't get it.
This film presented me with characters so ill-drawn, a plot so slipshod, and dialogue so absurd that I was left with the impression that the whole thing was just one big inside joke. Is it meant to be some sort of ironic exercise in story deconstruction, or is it just a really bad movie? The accompanying interview with Hartley is vague and meandering, offering very little insight into this curiously acclaimed piece.
Facts of the Case
It's 1988, his prison term is finally up, and Josh Hutton returns to his Long Island hometown. Meanwhile, in the same town, pretty Audry Hugo discovers her only college application has been accepted—to Harvard. "It's a college," she informs her parents in bored tones. Nothing interests Audry anymore: not school, not her soon to be ex-boyfriend Emmet, and certainly not her future, which she is convinced holds mass nuclear destruction. Until she meets Josh. Tall, mysterious, dressed in black like herself, he seems the embodiment of all that her small-town life is not.
Nobody seems to remember exactly what it was that landed Josh in jail some fifteen years ago, though everyone in town has a different theory. On one thing they all agree: he was responsible for the deaths of the sister and father of a local girl named Pearl. Despite Josh's history, he's a good mechanic, and Audry's father Vic (yes, that's Vic Hugo, groan) hires him to help out in his failing auto shop.
At the same time, a fashion photographer named Todd is prowling the town. With tantalizing hints at vast sums of money to be earned, he convinces Vic to twist Audry's arm into taking a year off school to go into modeling. Audry isn't so sure about this, since it would require her to move to New York City, and thus leave Josh. But with some well-timed pressure from Vic, Josh rebuffs Audry, and she leaves for the city. All seems to be going well, until the folks back at home discover that a greatly anticipated magazine ad features Audry wearing nothing but the jewelry she's advertising…
I struggled to find something to like about this film. It isn't fun, it isn't witty, it didn't make me laugh, and it didn't make me think (except to wonder what the point was). Hartley's Long Island town is the home of small-minded, bored and boring individuals whose primary occupations are apparently gossip, thumbwrestling, and the occasional drunken shoving match. The film is likewise unsympathetic to their foibles. We never learn why Josh would want to return to this place, let alone why anyone would want to make a movie about it.
The plot pushes these people around like pawns in a chess game, minus the logic. It proceeds as a series of incidents, jerkily transitioned, occasionally interspersed with a "MEANWHILE" or a "THEN" or even "A MONTH MAYBE TWO MONTHS LATER." We aren't permitted to get to know the characters enough to understand their motivations. The development of Audry's career, and her relationship with Josh, are barely even hinted at. The climax is insultingly contrived, and defuses before it has time to build up to anything.
Everyone in this movie is a caricature. The hyperdramatic, obsessive Audry seems to only have room for a couple of ideas in her head at a time. She reads Moliere, biographies of George Washington, and a book on nuclear warfare, which seems to imply that she's well-read; but she's apparently so ignorant of current history that she doesn't realize New York is in no immediate danger of being bombed. For a high school student who has just been accepted to Harvard, she sure doesn't seem very bright. If indie actress Adrienne Shelly set out to make her character unlikeable, at least she succeeded at that much.
The one thing Audry is good at is bargaining; she and her father, Vic, are engaged in a constant game of one-upsmanship for her future, in which winning the deal is more important than the end result. Vic struggles to keep the upper hand, but Audry outmaneuvers him more often than not. She may not be very bright, but she's smarter than he is. "Audry," he snaps, "the world is not gonna come to an end when there's so many people making so much money." Vic's motivations, while obviously selfish, are extremely unclear, particularly when he changes direction abruptly late in the movie. Of all the amateur actors in this film, Christopher Cooke, as Vic, is the most painful to watch.
Audry's ex-boyfriend Emmet is relentlessly whiny; I think he's supposed to be funny. Pearl (Julia McNeal, Urban Legend), who might as well have been named "Plot Device," spends her time palely loitering in the background until the one point at which the story requires her. Her would-be suitor, Mike, works (in theory) at Vic's auto shop, performing bad guitar solos and trying to draw Josh out. As for Josh himself, played credibly by Robert Burke (Robocop 3, "From the Earth to the Moon"): he seems a decent enough guy, but we never get to see enough of him to understand what he's up to.
The filming and editing make the film unique, if not always pleasant to watch. Hartley uses few establishing shots, choosing to focus on the actors almost exclusively of the setting, which in this case isn't necessarily a good thing. One odd convention he uses repeatedly, in which entire conversations are held with disembodied voices from off camera while the camera focuses on a single person. Another interesting effect occurs when Audry "tunes out" her parents' (and later Josh's) voices, and their words repeat, overlap, and swirl together into an impenetrable haze of sound.
The simple, dysphonic, guitar-driven score is quirky enough to suit the film, and sounds passably clear throughout the mono soundtrack. The dialogue, however, is occasionally dim and difficult to make out. The problem here is likely not the transfer, but the original recording quality. The same culprit is doubtless to blame for the mild graininess of the picture.
I was pleased to discover that the disc includes a fifteen minute feature entitled "Business is Business: A Conversation with Hal Hartley." Ah, I thought, this will explain it all; at last the director will reveal what he was thinking when he made this movie. And, in its own way, the "conversation" was informative. Remember that scene in This is Spinal Tap where David St. Hubbins is interviewed at the end-of-tour party, and he sounds like he's always about to say something coherent, but never quite manages it? That sums up the Hartley feature pretty well. He talked a lot, but he didn't really say much. "Business is Business" was shot in poor quality video at an unflattering proximity to Hartley's face; his voice is indistinct and occasionally drowned out by background noise; and about half of the fifteen minutes are taken up by clips from the film. The only real clue he offered as to the purpose of the movie I'd just seen was the comment, "I don't really want you to lose yourself in the movie, in the story." And at this goal he certainly succeeded.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you can't connect with the characters, become involved in the plot, admire the visuals, or savor the script, what's left to appreciate? The answer, I must assume, is irony. Hartley is clearly not a storyteller; what he may be is a story deconstructor. He has, in his own words, "a healthy disregard for the conventions of naturalistic storytelling." Perhaps what he is trying to do here is not to tell a story, but to play with the audience's expectations of story. Therefore it may not even be fair to judge The Unbelievable Truth on the basis of the conventional standards I have applied to it. Maybe it's not fun to watch because it's not supposed to be fun to watch. Maybe the characters and dialogue are inane because they're supposed to be inane. Maybe the plot jumps around like a three-legged frog because the plot isn't the important thing. I am still mystified as to what the important thing is, exactly, but I'm willing to concede that it may be something subtle and valid, and may even redeem the movie as art.
No, I don't "get the joke," and I'm guessing that the average viewer won't, either. But I've done enough research to know that this picture has its fans. The freedom to create films with limited appeal is one of the beauties of independent filmmaking. As an indie film, "The Unbelievable Truth" is a success if it says what Hal Hartley wanted to say in the manner he wanted to say it. Whether or not I caught the punchline is, ultimately, irrelevant.
It's possible that you're one of the rare few who will enjoy The Unbelievable Truth. If you're interested in experimental independent film for its own sake, you may want to rent it. But if you just want an entertaining low-budget look at small-town losers, try American Movie, Slacker, or Clerks instead.
The defendant is free to go without penalty, as the law is unclear in cases such as these. As for the rest of the court, stop me if you've heard this one: This duck walks into a bar…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Business is Business: A Conversation with Hal Hartley
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