Spotty plot, acting underlie 'The Unbelievable Truth'


October 25, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

For a while there, I wasn't sure if "The Unbelievable Truth" was a movie or some weird Christopher Walken/Rosanna Arquette look-alike contest. For both Robert Burke and Adrienne Shelly, the stars of this small film, look so much like their more successful counterparts that it's mind-boggling.

When I settled down to concentrate on the movie, which opens today at the Charles, what I saw was an amusing but not compelling example of a genre that might be called "Oh-those-zany-small-towns!" What a wacky kind of place is Lindhurst, L.I.! It's a real goof-a-rama!

The film opens with the return of Josh (Burke), a handsome Irish-American, who hitchhikes into town, immediately attracting attention with his brooding good looks and dark wardrobe. "Are you a priest?" he's asked. "No," he replies, "I'm a mechanic."

He's also, or so everyone believes, a murderer, though the stories vary. Evidently, 10 years earlier he'd left town for prison, having killed both a daughter and her father under somewhat ambiguous circumstances that were not quite first degree murder but not quite negligent homicide, either.

Josh's presence -- and Burke is very good at getting across his beautiful passivity and yet his sense of fundamental decency -- is provocative to everybody, but none more so than Audrey, his boss' daughter. Audrey (Shelly) is somewhat less enigmatic and less originally imagined than Josh but the young actress works hard with what, five years ago, would have been the Arquette role and today is the Wynona Ryder role. She's a nihilistic, questing teen, all sensitivity and explosive beauty and repressed sexuality who has noted that the world is wider than the portals of Lindhurst might suggest, even if a too-cute part of her insists tediously that the Russian missiles are about to land.

The screenplay, by director Hal Hartley, takes these two through a series of gyrations, and tracks the reverberations their relationship unleashes on those observing it, including Audrey's blowhard dad Vic (Christopher Cooke), her ex-boyfriend Emmett Gary Sauer), and the murder victim's surviving daughter Pearl (Julia McNeal). The plot unfolds in a mannered, perhaps precious way, in that affected never-never land between naturalism and satire; worse, most of the emotional states are baldly declared rather than dramatized. Hartley is grasping at, and only fitfully achieving, an overall tone of mordancy -- formally called "black humor" -- rather than believability.

The cast is as spotty as the plot. Burke, as I have said, is excellent; he may have a real film career ahead of him. Cooke, on the other hand, is simply awful, a ranting moron in a part that isn't very well thought out. As for Long Island, it remains in art, as in life, completely nondescript.

'The Unbelievable Truth'

Starring Robert Burke

and Adrienne Shelly

Directed by Hal Hartley

Released by Miramax

Rated R

** 1/2

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