By Brad Cook | December 12, 2003

If you haven’t seen a Hal Hartley film, try to imagine one of the Coen brothers’ more esoteric works, such as “Barton Fink.” Now wash out the emotion and scale down the production values, but retain the quirks and memorable dialogue. That will give you a sense of Hartley’s movies, but you really need to watch one and judge for yourself. “Amateur” is a good place to start.

Martin Donovan, who seemed to be a rising star not too long ago but subsequently dropped over the horizon, stars as Thomas, who wakes up on the street, bloody and surrounded by the glass from the window he just fell through. Elina Löwensohn, who plays Sofia Ludens, checks him out and runs away, glancing furtively over her shoulder.

When Thomas awakes, he has amnesia. Not knowing what to do, he wanders into a diner and meets Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a nymphomaniac ex-nun trying—and failing—to write porn. When Thomas discovers that she’s a virgin, he tries to understand how she can be a nymphomaniac. “I’m choosy,” Isabelle replies. It’s a great line, and it’s emblematic of Hartley’s off-beat style. His main cast, which also includes Damian Young’s Kramer-esque accountant, Edward, is full of characters who are merely amateurs in their given professions, making it up as they go and trying to figure out where they fit in life. Who hasn’t been in their shoes? Hell, who isn’t in their shoes now?

Thomas is probably the only exception to that idea in “Amateur,” but that’s only because he has no idea who he is or how he should react to people he had relationships with before his “accident.” He’s really the ultimate amateur, someone who must start from square one and figure out not only his place in life but also what he should think of that position. Some feel the ending is needlessly downbeat, but I think it was really the only way you could end the story, which was obviously headed for a train wreck. While Hartley’s style may be different (unsurprisingly, he’s big in Europe), he knows his story mechanics; he understands how to place figurative guns on figurative mantelpieces and have them go off in act three, as Chekhov might say.

But don’t take the preceding and think this is an uber-serious art film full of sullen characters trying to be deep and meaningful. There’s plenty of humor in “Amateur,” including Young’s spazzed-out antics after he’s subjected to an unusual torture technique at the hands of two bumbling corporate assassins. (If you’re wondering where he saw him before, he was the bus driver on the show “Pete & Pete,” which you must try if you’re a fan of quirky humor. It’s definitely not just for kids.) And there’s a death toward the end that’s reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch in its absurdity; I kept expecting to hear “‘Twas just a flesh wound.”

So why did it take so long for this one to arrive on DVD? Who knows, other than the fact that all the studios are currently digging through their catalogs to take advantage of this new format, which is practically a license to print money. The video presentation is solid but not spectacular. This isn’t a film that’s going to get an expensive remaster, given the potential sales target, which is a shame but understandable.

This edition also includes the 14-minute featurette “Professional Amateurs: The Making of Amateur.” This short was filmed on location while the movie was made, so it has an EPK feel to it that doesn’t dig too deep for fear of spoiling important plot points. That makes sense, given that it was probably used to promote the movie, but it’s too bad Hartley couldn’t come in for a commentary. (Or perhaps he doesn’t like to do them, or Sony didn’t want to spend the money on one. I don’t know for sure.)

The strangest absence on this disc, though, is the film’s trailer. Four others—Auto Focus; Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Spun; and The Princess and the Warrior—are included, but not “Amateur.” Sony’s antiquated site for the film has a cruddy quality trailer for the film, so one obviously exists. Again, I have no idea why this wasn’t included.

The bottom line: If you’ve never been exposed to Hartley, try to find this one as a rental and give him a shot. If you don’t like this film, you likely won’t enjoy any of his others, although “Henry Fool” is also due out soon from Sony, and that’s probably his second most accessible movie after this one. And if you’re a Hartley fan, you probably already own this disc and read my review just to see if I got anything wrong.

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