Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth is a stripped-down, deadpan, existential suburban romantic comedy featuring a cast you’ve never heard of and filmed on what looks like a budget of Green Stamps. If nothing else, it’s something else.
Set in an eerily unpopulated Long Island town, Truth follows Audrey Hugo (Adrienne Shelly), a disaffected teenage bombshell who falls into a funk over what she expects to be impending nuclear disaster and quits her job at Burger World. Dumping her yuppie-wannabe boyfriend, Audrey falls for Josh (Robert Burke), a gentle ex-con garage mechanic who may have killed his last girlfriend and who shares her interest in George Washington. Then she becomes a highly paid fashion model. We’re not talking stark realism here.
Instead, writer-director Hartley conjures up a sweetly discombobulated comedy of manners, full of benign eccentrics. Audrey’s father, a loudmouth garage owner named Victor Hugo (Christopher Cooke), isn’t above bribing his daughter with a donation to her favorite charity if she’ll go to a college less expensive than Harvard. Her friend Pearl (Julia McNeal) is a grave beauty whose relationship with another mechanic (Mark Bailey) has him musing over the ways love can make a man clean up his act: ”Suddenly I’m buying underwear up the wazoo.”
With its whimsical intertitles (”Meanwhile”) and plangent soundtrack guitar twangs, The Unbelievable Truth is as droll as you can get and still have a movie. But Hartley’s fondness for his characters — the way they’re at their most charmingly silly when they try to be serious — just barely keeps the film from tipping into arty preciousness. A few of the performances are amateurish, and the sound mix is patchy, but The Unbelievable Truth has a richness that is lacking in most movies with a budget. Its pleasures are no less pungent for being minor. B+