In Robert Altman's The Player, screenwriter Michael Tolkin picked apart the morals of Hollywood with cool precision. In The Rapture, which Tolkin also directed, he stared to the point of our deep discomfort at religious fervor of a very American sort. His newest movie, The New Age, bridges his two fields of fascination: cultural hipness and spiritual emptiness. The result is a dark, ambitious, unsettling piece of work.
Peter Weller and Judy Davis star as Peter and Katherine Witner, dauntingly fashionable Angelenos who are miserable in the midst of their sterile plenty. He's a bored adman who cheats on his wife (his favored pickup line: ''How are your morals tonight?''). She's an unsuccessful businesswoman whose antidote to stress is shopping. Sex between them requires spoken fantas- ies. Real communication between them is stale. Seeking salvation from their privileged misery, the two open an overpriced boutique that they call Hipocracy, selling things people don't need to people who don't need anything -- at least not anything material. When the shop fails, the Witners turn to the bells and feathers of New Age spiritualism and consider death. Reborn -- in ways I won't spoil -- they become more American than ever, in ways ditto.
The drawback of The New Age is that Tolkin's wit is so caustic, his dissection of the gooey vagaries of New Age trends so pitiless, that even at their most despairing, Peter and Katherine project a kind of distance that keeps us from feeling a full spectrum of compassion for these stunted souls. Ironically, only a huckster (Samuel L. Jackson) who runs a shady telemarketing operation projects the kind of fire the Witners are seeking for their bellies. Still, I'm a convert: Any time Tolkin gives a sermon, it's worthwhile being in his congregation.