Hal Hartley’s latest film, Amateur, is quite a departure from his earlier work. Still gone is his once-traditional lead, the crimson-haired ingenue Adrienne Shelly (who hasn’t been seen since Trust), and in her stead are two foreign actresses, Isabelle Huppert (as a lapsed nun trying to make it as a porn story writer and who believes she is a nymphomaniac) and Elena Lowensohn (returning to Hartley’s films as Sofia, a somewhat psycho porn star). Hartley’s favorite male lead, Martin Donovan, remains as Thomas, the slimeball husband of Sofia.

The plot is this: Sofia is fed up with Thomas, so she tries to kill him. He doesn’t die–he just cracks his head and develops amnesia. Isabelle finds him and takes him under her already fragile wing. Throw in an extortion plot wherein the old Thomas was trying to blackmail a nameless entity, and add the thugs trying to kill him. Eventually, everyone gets sucked into this scheme, and nothing works out for any of them.

Why Amateur? Well, all the principals are new at something: Isabelle is new at the porn game and a virgin to boot. Sofia is new at trying to extort money from someone. Thomas is new to life in general. Clever, right?

Well…. The problem is that the plot is revealed so cryptically and moves so slowly that it renders the movie stagnant. It’s difficult to follow, and the characters drone on and on at each other, philosophizing at length, about what, I can’t even remember. The action/comedy sequences are superb, but there just aren’t enough of them to carry the film. The end result is that Amateur is a fabulous story that’s told rather badly.

At least the acting is on target, and the story is original. And some of the film’s scenes, especially the ones involving the two thugs, Thomas’s old partner, and his torture and revenge, are so bright as to dim the rest of the movie.

Hartley’s characteristic oddball-ness is here, all right, but the fresh and funny approach to the way we live our lives is absent. Amateur could have been an action-driven comedy instead of a sloppy narrative; Hartley made a ‘deep’ and tragic movie about big-time people. Whereas a movie like Trust, a film about lower-middle class twentysomethings, was a comedic riot. Hal, I hope you return to your old ways.

And I miss Adrienne, too.