The Unbelievable Truth

1990, Movie, R, 90 mins


THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH proved a promising feature-film debut for writer-director Hal Hartley, who was dubbed "the Godard of Long Island" by critics with more sense of humor than of substance. In the vein of Jim Jarmusch's STRANGER THAN PARADISE and the work of David Lynch, THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH searches for the unexpected, bizarre, and magical essence of prosaic American locales. For director Hartley, that locale is Lindenhurst, Long Island, hometown of Josh Hutton (Robert Burke), a paroled convict who, as the film opens, returns to the area (where everyone remembers the details of his crime differently) because he has nowhere else to go. Haunted by a past that includes the manslaughter of his sweetheart and a prison stretch for killing her grieving father in an argument about her death, Hutton is too shell-shocked to begin his life anew until he meets Audry Hugo (Adrienne Shelly), a high-school student with an obsessive fear of nuclear attack. When Audry's father, garage owner Vic (Christopher Cooke), agrees to hire Josh for his exceptional mechanical skills, Audry and Josh can no longer suppress their growing mutual attraction.

Hartley exhibits a born filmmaker's eye for composition and camera placement in this offbeat, dryly humorous film. His screenwriting skills are less solid, however, and the film is further damaged by the uneven quality of its cast, which weakens the already delicate balance in this black comedy. Although Burke makes the ideal loner hero, Shelly is saddled with a role that's more a collection of nonconformist attitudes than a true character. More damaging is the casting of Cooke, whose delineation of the harried middle-class father is amateurish.

Despite these flaws, THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH captivates with its committedly off-center vision of suburban angst. Long Island becomes a world of identity crises, serendipitous occurrences, and amusing non-sequiturs. It's an impressive, if not always cogent, attempt to mine humor out of tragic circumstances, and it manages to send up small-town life without being condescending--no mean feat. Unfortunately, Hartley's subsequent features, from TRUST to SIMPLE MEN to AMATEUR, seem to have mined the exact same territory, to increasingly meager dramatic and emotional effect. leave a comment

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