Hal Hartley is the only American director to contribute to France’s Collection 2000 Seen By series, a group of one-hour TV films about the end of the millennium. In “The Book of Life,” he gives a playful, irreverent and quite unorthodox account of the Second Coming of Jesus, who is depicted as a young businessman returning to earth to kick off the Apocalypse. Though pic’s cast and buffoonery partially overlap Hartley’s recent feature film “Henry Fool,” this is a distinctly different story. It is one of the hipper items in the Collection 2000 and should be one of its most popular episodes with liberal-minded TV buyers.
A feeling of doom pervades the jaded population of New York as they get ready to turn the Big Page on the calendar. In a hotel bar, a young gambler (Dave Simonds) and the waitress who secretly loves him (Miho Nikaido) chat with a down-and-out (Thomas Jay Ryan), who is the devil in disguise.
Meanwhile, Jesus (Martin Donovan) makes a smart re-entry at JFK airport with his sexy assistant Magdalena (P.J. Harvey). He has been sent by his wrathful Father to break the seven seals on the Book of Life and bring about the end of the world. But he has second thoughts.
It’s a fairly witty conceit, as Hartley sets up his premise and has Jesus pick up the fateful Book — now conveniently on computer disk — in a bowling alley locker room. Donovan and singer Harvey hit the right note of straight-faced, tongue-in-cheek farce. The parallel action in the bar, with its pseudo-philosophizing and poor man’s Faustian pact, is far less fascinating than their mission, but in the end the two segments dovetail as all the characters come together in a hotel room.
Lacking a neat conclusion to his story, Hartley finds himself with nowhere to take the strong setup, and film wraps a bit lamely.
Many faces in the cast are familiar from Hartley’s other films but are amusingly distinctive here in their updated morality play roles. Lensed in digital video by cinematographer Jim Denault and blown up to 35mm, pic has an eye-catching techno look that goes curiously well with its omnipotent hero. Not only the music but abstract sounds are imaginatively used to give events a familiar yet otherworldly feel.