First up on this run, though, is America's own Hal Hartley, with a typically deadpan take on faith, Armageddon, and the end of the world. The Book of Life takes St. John's Revelation at its word--only the setting is New York City and the seven seals to be broken are actually on a Mac Powerbook. Hartley regular Martin Donovan stars as Jesus, who comes back to destroy the Earth with his loving sidekick Magdalena (PJ Harvey, who for a rock star is surprisingly awkward at standing and walking with a camera watching her, though her lines are delivered quite well). Jesus frets about his mission, still willing to forgive us our sins, but Dad has laid down the law and will brook no hesitation. Meanwhile, Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) is counting off what only he knows will be the last hours by getting drunk in a hotel bar, where he's up to his old tricks jockeying for a good person's soul.
Heavens naturally reflect the world that invents them, so the rigid hierarchies or bucolic pastoral afterlives of years past have, in this century, been mostly replaced with befuddled bureaucracies. Hartley has fun conjuring up a particularly nasty variation on this theme, with ruthless lawyers engaging in Mob-land shootouts with Mormons, when they're not trying to intimidate their client's only begotten son into fulfilling his contractual obligations to open the last of the seals. And there are all the jokes you'd expect when Jesus and Satan complain about their jobs and obligations in the director's trademark low-key, nothing-shocking-going-on-here style. It's all very clever, really. After all, Hartley has never been anything less.
The question is whether he can be more. Even his highly admired Henry Fool seemed, after the critical applause died down, less about the Big Ideas it trotted out than about the novelty of stock Hartley characters talking about them. Considering the likely audience for the project, there's not much to Book of Life that's challenging or surprising, from Jesus' crowd-pleasing gripe about televangelists using his name in vain, to the quirky soundtrack that keeps things moving even as it dots the i's and crosses the t's of the emotion in every scene. Hartley does branch out visually--shooting on digital video, he allows for an overexposed, constantly smearing, off-kilter style that really does look like the world's about to melt away (when it doesn't remind you of an MTV concert video, that is). There's a quick shot of the sky fractured into giant blocks, which comes early enough to make you think that the director will really have fun playing with his new camera, but after that it's just slant angles and too much lighting--kid's stuff compared to, say, Wong Kar-Wai's work.
This is disappointing, because I do think Hartley has it in him to do more. But even when you consider all that's bad about The Book of Life--its obviousness, its self-congratulatory humor, the sometimes annoying visuals--it remains a very enjoyable bit of fluff. Throw in Martin Donovan, though, and it becomes a must-see. With his sad eyes in conflict with his perpetual grumpy frown, Donovan manages to convey all at once the split within the character--divine being and human, judge and redeemer--which most actors make so broad they come off as schizophrenic. The film doesn't allow him the opportunity to be one of the great movie Jesuses; the role as conceived is too passive, since to save the world this time requires that he do nothing. Still, Donovan captures the righteous anger, then keeps it bottled up and allows it to leak out only in disgust or helplessness. It's a beautiful, subtle performance; by comparison, Thomas Jay Ryan's hammy, loutish Satan is, as Donovan accurately complains, simply dull.