An advertisement for Buddhism in which dramatic transparency, inertia and preachiness operate in complete harmony, “The Fourth Noble Truth” is a slog of mind-and-soul-numbing proportions. Boasting a frail narrative skeleton whose sole purpose is to provide opportunities for characters to explain — and disingenuously debate — core Eastern religious tenants, writer-director Gary T. McDonald’s film charts the dynamic between movie star Aaron (Harry Hamlin) and spiritual guru Rachel (Kristen Kerr), whom Aaron is compelled to see in order to curry favor with a judge presiding over his recent road-rage arrest. Aaron is the self-centered, pleasure-before-enlightenment type, and his story is one of coming to understand the need to transcend his self-destructive ways through meditation. That course, however, is charted with such dreary sermonizing and dull interplay between its leads that the resultant project seems destined to appeal only to already committed true believers.
Having gotten himself into trouble with the law by taking a golf club to a random motorist’s vehicle, Aaron arrives on Rachel’s doorsteps in need of help, although his smarmy arrogance and cocksure lothario ways make it immediately clear that he’s anything but Buddhism material. That’s dispiriting to Rachel — albeit not as dispiriting as the film forcing its figure of faith to go gratuitously topless in her opening scene. That unnecessary gesture immediately exposes “The Fourth Noble Truth” as something less than a holy work, not to mention one that’s comfortable engaging in crass tactics to keep viewers engaged. Rachel is repeatedly objectified via shots of her jogging in tight tops and short shorts, dressing and undressing, and — as a part-time actress who’s eventually given a role by Aaron in his ongoing production — donning a hooker’s outfit for work, all in an effort to define her as spiritual and sexual in equal measure.
McDonald doesn’t treat Rachel as seriously as he does her opinions on Buddhism, just as he’s less invested in lively plotting as he is in promoting his tale’s underlying lesson. Its title referring to the last stage in the process Aaron must undergo in order to free himself of his negative behavior and impulses, “The Fourth Noble Truth” is staged like a two-character play, with scene after scene of Hamlin and Kerr chatting away in sparsely furnished interior settings. Those are directed with minimal imagination, and invariably involve Rachel earnestly reciting textbook-like speeches about letting go of ego and stepping outside one’s self to achieve peace and harmony, and Aaron boorishly scoffing at such ideas while trying to get into Rachel’s pants and saying ear-bleedingly awkward things like, “Dude! Now I want this to happen, Dog!”
Such awful dialogue isn’t saved by the flat performances of Hamlin and Kerr, who are saddled with one-note roles that go nowhere. Stuck in one bland locale after another (apartment, garage, movie trailer, park), the two leads go back and forth about Aaron’s need to stop being angry and find a higher calling. Alas, their rapport remains superficial throughout, and is compounded by the fact that, even after an impromptu bedroom tryst supposedly complicates Aaron and Rachel’s relationship, McDonald’s script moves neither protagonist out of their original comfort zone until the final few minutes, when developments lead to convenient epiphanies that open the characters’ eyes to new possibilities — and the audience’s eyes to the material’s shoddy construction.