The Book of Life Movie Review

After six feature films shot with the same "too hip to smile" minimalist approach, critic's darling Hal Hartley really needed to shake things up. Shot on hand-held digital video as part of the France Collection 2000 series, The Book of Life is that project, a shaggy dog guffaw at the end of the millennium.

Miles away from what we critics enjoy referring to as "visually austere" (i.e., static shots with careful compositions), The Book of Life throws caution to the wind. Working with new cinematographer Jim Denault (Boys Don't Cry) instead of old standby Michael Spiller (Trust), Hartley spins and fusses in colorful blurred abstractions, creating a dreamy, impressionistic look with none of his trademark hard edges. Look, ma -- no hands!

The plot, of course, is pure Hartley. On December 31, 1999, the fate of the worlds lies in the hand of an indecisive Jesus Christ (Martin Donovan, Amateur). Moping about the streets of New York, he has been asked to open The Book of Life. The Seven Seals are mini-files in his electronic PowerBook waiting to be opened, thus causing Armageddon. He stalls as long as he can, trailed by loyal secretary/accomplice Mary Magdalene (chic pop icon P.J. Harvey), who offers perfunctory moral support.

Meanwhile, the bourbon-voiced devil (Thomas Jay Ryan, reprising his Henry Fool persona), desperately attempts to get his hands on that powerful Book of Life. He chases Jesus through the city. They have a few drinks, argue over the state of the planet, and consider whether or not Satan was "fired" from that big business firm in the sky.

Millennial fears have passed, but audiences may still be riveted by this time bomb scenario. The clock is slowly ticking to midnight, transforming this comic meditation into a mini-thriller. Hartley maintains a clever tone of irreverent anticipation, taking breathers when Mary Magdalene takes a last-minute trip to Tower Records. Wouldn't you know, it's used as an excuse for the lovely P.J. Harvey to break into song?

Tension is sustained despite a series of digressions, some funny, others tedious. There are amusing scenes with God's perpetually irritated lawyers ("Armageddon, Armageddon, and Jehoshaphat, how may I direct your call?") cleaning up shop at the end of days, as well as a surprise high-tech shootout between Christians and a Mormon sect.

Throughout, Satan finds time for angry sermons, preaching into microphones from omnipotent boom poles occasionally dropped into frame. Jean-Luc Godard would have adored this self-referential "we're making a movie" in-joke, but general audiences may pooh-pooh such cheap, pretentious hijinks. Still, even too-cool hipsters will dig the buoyant music, which includes original work by Harvey and Yo La Tengo (who have a nifty cameo playing a Salvation Army Band).

The masterstroke is casting Donovan, Hartley's favorite actor, as Jesus Christ. Donovan plays the role in much the same manner as their earlier collaborations -- soft spoken, intense, prone to erratic head tilts and ever-so-slight mood swings. He resembles a young politician in his dark suit and tie, PowerBook tucked under his arm. Think Jesus from Squaresville. It's a nice touch.

Running at 63 minutes, The Book of Life is a briskly paced jaunt that doesn't take itself too seriously. Admirers of Hal Hartley, that modern day Buster Keaton of philosophers, will be pleased to see their man expanding his range. Non-fans can rejoice, too, since he hasn't made a feature film since this one. Maybe the candle that burns twice as bright really does burn half as long.

Book 'em, Jesus.

Comments

The Book of Life Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 1998

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