Beauty tames the Beast and then Modern Society finishes him off in Hal Hartley’s “No Such Thing,” a potentially witty satire on the death of myth and mystery in the contempo world that falls hard and fast early on. Four years after his last major work, the flawed but engrossing “Henry Fool,” Hartley seems to have the exhausted a rich vein of writing that stretched through six remarkable features during the ’90s. Deadly dull in stretches, and just plain embarrassing in others, this wannabe modern fairy tale about a rookie New York journalist who falls for an Icelandic monster only fleetingly recalls the verbal bounce and character satire of Hartley’s best pics. Result is practically DOA at the box office.
Opening with a sequence in which the Monster (Robert John Burke), a long-haired reptilian with a gothic dress sense, gives vent to his isolated misery in the Far North, pic initially raises hopes of being an acerbic take on genre figures like Frankenstein or the Wolf Man, with human emotions trapped in unappealing forms. Foul-mouthed and ornery, he’s unrepentant about slaughtering a TV crew sent to film him but also growls, “I’m not the monster I used to be.”
One of the dismembered crew was the fiance of Beatrice (Sarah Polley), an office junior on a sensation-seeking Gotham TV news show whose boss (Helen Mirren) berates her staff to find something more interesting than global catastrophes, terrorist bombings and economic collapse (“Hasn’t the president attempted suicide yet?”). Briefly intrigued by a story that the mayor has sold Lower Manhattan to a major Hollywood studio, she finally takes a chance on sending Beatrice to Iceland to follow up the Monster story.
Played by Mirren at full queen-bitch tilt, these scenes immediately raise fears that the picture is set on tilling the already well-ploughed field of media satire. However, Polley’s rapidly-delivered voiceovers and restrained playing do maintain an underlying, Hartleyesque flavor, briefly sustained when she flies off to Iceland but is almost killed when her plane crashes in the Atlantic.
Patched up by an Icelandic doctor (Julie Christie) and rapidly visited by her boss, Beatrice journeys across the bleak, unforgiving landscape to the tiny fishing community that lives in perpetual fear of its gross neighbor. After getting her drunk, the locals dump her outside the Monster’s cheesily hi-tech lair.
Hereon, there’s that unmistakable sound of air leaving a balloon as the movie almost grinds to a halt. Despite fruity playing by Burke and Polley’s don’t-give-me-that-monster-attitude approach, scenes between the two entirely lack the sardonic flavor and delight in language that one expects in Hartley’s movies. After the Monster asks Beatrice to help him find the loony Dr. Artaud (Baltasar Kormakur, helmer of the delightful “101 Reykjavik”), the only man who can end his torment of immortality, the action shifts back to New York, where, like some variant on “King Kong,” the Monster becomes a victim of the media and government scientists.
Though the film always maintains a minimalist Hartleyesque look, with fixed compositions and precision framing, the content is poverty-row in imagination and humor. Impressively transformed by scaly make-up by Mark Rappaport’s Creature Effects Shop, Burke certainly makes the Monster (pic’s original title) a larger-than-life character, occasionally revealing his sad inner core in quieter moments (“No one’s scared of me anymore”). But by trying — and failing — to play to the gallery, the script never gets to grip with its central theme: the death of superstition and the irrational as the 21st century tramples across the final threshhold.
Normally emerging with dignity in even the worst movies, such as “The Weight of Water,” Canadian actress Polley isn’t given much of a chance here to connect at an emotional level with her co-star. Mirren and Kormakur both ham it up to decreasing effect, Christie is stuck in a bland supporting role and other characters are one-dimensional.
Michael Spiller’s lensing of the Icelandic locations is sharp and clean, and production and costume design accentuate the differences between Gotham and the Far North. Hartley’s insouciant music provides a agreeably light touch in the early reels.