Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sarah Polley, Robert John Burke, Julie Christie, Helen Mirren, Annika Peterson, Erica Gimpel, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Bill Sage
Written by: Hal Hartley
Directed by: Hal Hartley
MPAA Rating: R for language and brief violence
Running Time: 102
Date: 05/01/2001

No Such Thing (2002)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Monster' Sinks

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I get the feeling that writer/director Hal Hartley identifies with the Monster in his latest movie, No Such Thing.

Hartley has always been an outcast in the film biz; I picture him hiding in dark rooms, drinking and howling about the stupidity of humanity. It must be frustrating for the maker of clever, introverted films like The Unbelievable Truth and Trust to see stupid monstrosities like The Time Machine and A Beautiful Mind raking in all the dough.

It's also been a good four years since Hartley's last outing, the unusual, intriguing, yet ultimately flawed Henry Fool. Unfortunately, No Such Thing can be described similarly. It's a film with an idea buried somewhere inside its fabric, but never clearly seen or felt.

Sarah Polley stars as the sweet-voiced, strong-willed, straightforward Beatrice, an assistant at a fast-paced TV news show. When she finds an audio tape recorded by the Monster (Robert John Burke) in the mail, she realizes that it's a clue about the disappearance of her fiancée, a cameraman who journeyed to Iceland to find the Monster.

She pitches the story to her shrewd, cold-hearted boss (Helen Mirren). After being told, "Who's going to make the coffee while you're gone?" Beatrice heads out, only to be waylaid by a plane crash that kills everyone on board except her.

A kindly nurse (Julie Christie) helps Beatrice get back on her feet, and before long, she's in the Monster's lair. He drinks and howls while she attempts to charm him with her unfaltering manner and logical conversation.

She brings the melancholy Monster back to New York with the promise that she'll help him find Dr. Artaud (Baltasar Kormakur), the only man alive who can help the beast kill himself. One catch: Beatrice makes the Monster promise not to kill anyone.

Once in New York, there's a lot of time wasted following Beatrice's partying (and having sex with strange men) before Dr. Artaud, Monster, and heroine finally get together for a climax that leaves us scratching our heads. The scenes have little to do with the stuff that already has happened.

In the meantime, some of the characters talk (again) about the stupidity of humans, how we as humans created the monster but don't know what to do with him, how senseless the media is, and so on.

No Such Thing is a movie in which the striking visual centerpiece -- the Monster -- doesn't quite match up with anything anyone says.

Why did the director invent such a beast? Hartley seems far too intelligent to use it simply to rage against humanity. But any other reason is out of reach.

On the plus side, Hartley seems to have found an ideal actress with the brave Polley (Go and The Sweet Hereafter), who fills in nicely for Adrienne Shelly, the beautiful whip-smart blonde from Hartley's first two films. This kind of character has always been Hartley's clearest voice, and it's nice to have her back.

Still, No Such Thing didn't grab me. At first I felt like I was listening to a bearded intellectual ranting about something clever; but then I realized he's merely drunk. Is he a genius or monster? This movie doesn't seem to know or care.

It's almost as if Hartley tried on the monster mask himself, couldn't see what he looked like, and forgot why he'd done it.

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