In "Amateur," writer-director Hal Hartley's usual minimalism edges toward the maximal. The director of such wiggy art-house mood pieces as "The Unbelievable Truth" and "Trust" is trying for an action movie--or, to be more precise, an inaction action movie. But it's still Hartleyland on the screen: lots of stranded, blankish characters in desolate decor. Hartley hasn't really changed his stripes, just his tempo.
Hartley has always drawn from a lot of disparate pop influences, from Godard to film noir, but never more so than in "Amateur." Although the film is ostensibly about "redemption" and "exploitation"--this according to the director in interviews--what it's really about is movie-making as personal style. Hartley turns what might have been a lurid pulp thriller into a freeze-dried art thing. He squeezes all the juice out of pulp.
Martin Donovan, a Hartley regular, plays Thomas, an amnesia victim trying to recover his past, which almost certainly involves sordid cruelties involving Sofia (Elina Lowensohn), a porno actress and prostitute who in turn is hooked up to corporate assassins (Chuck Montgomery and David Simonds). And then there's Thomas' blitzed-out former partner Edward (Damian Young) and Isabelle Huppert's Isabelle, an ex-nun who writes short stories for porno magazines and believes the Virgin Mary has singled her out to redeem Sofia. (She describes herself as a nymphomaniac virgin.)
Hired assassins, drug dealers, shootouts in Grand Central Station, Catholic iconography--Hartley stirs it all up but there's little resonance. The actors are energetically enigmatic and Hartley doesn't encourage them to drop their cool. Everything fits together as a mosaic of freeze-dried pop. And because so much pop these days is overheated, Hartley's restraint at least is bracing. It's just isn't all that wonderful.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence and language . Times guidelines: It includes a few graphic shoot-outs and torture scenes.
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'Amateur' Isabelle Huppert: Isabelle Martin Donovan: Thomas Elina Lowensohn: Sofia Damian Young: Edward A Sony Pictures Classic release. Writer-director Hal Hartley. Producers Ted Hope & Hal Hartley. Executive producers Jerome Brownstein, Lindsay Law, Scott Meek, Yves Marmion, for UGC. Cinematographer Michael Spiller. Editor Steve Hamilton. Music Jeff Taylor & Ned Rifle. Production design Steve Rosenzweig. Set decorators Jennifer Baime and Amy Tapper. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
* In selected theaters.