The Fourth Noble Truth starts off interestingly enough: Aaron (Harry Hamlin of Mad Men, LA Law) is a pampered, self-centered movie star who exemplifies the stereotypical indulgent Hollywood lifestyle. After a violent episode of road rage (that’s not very well directed by writer/helmer Gary McDonald), as a condition of staying out of the slammer Aaron attends private Buddhist meditation lessons taught by Rachel (Kristen Kerr), who is also an aspiring actress.
Of course, their relationship begins with a typical Tinseltown “cute meet” that foreshadows what is to come. Skeptical of the whole meditation methodology, Aaron is basically complying with the stipulation to take part in this process in order to beat the road rage rap and avoid serving time. However, Rachel is serious and proceeds to teach Aaron – whether he likes it or not – Buddha’s basic principles so he can discover inner peace and avoid “going postal” (the name of a movie Aaron also directed) in future.
Noble has an intriguing idea: Aaron embodies the privileged, egocentric self, while Rachel appears to symbolize spiritual values. Much of Noble consists of a dialogue between the two, with their diametrically opposed world views. Aaron is the libertine; Rachel the ascetic. Their interactions are well acted. However, this movie is no My Dinner with Andre, the 1981 film helmed by Louis Malle and co-written by its co-stars, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, which was so full of witty, sparkling, illuminating repartee.
Noble‘s path to enlightenment is problematic and doesn’t fulfill the promise of its premise. While at first the discussions about the tenets of Buddhism do raise some consciousness and are absorbing and educational, Noble quickly runs out of steam. After half an hour the eight or so conversations between Aaron and Rachel become repetitive, boring and preachy. What a shock – a movie about a teacher (Zen or otherwise) is pedantic and tediously talky. There are even onscreen titles to drive the Buddhist points home. In addition to being aurally dull, these flat gabfests aren’t even shot with interesting angles: An artist like Orson Welles might have lensed these vignettes to at least make them optically stimulating to look at. (Happy 100th birthday, Orson – even if you’re a century-old, you’re still forever the Wunderkind!)
What’s worse, especially annoying is that the prim and proper Buddhist tutor is a sexually repressed person using “enlightenment” to hide her inner conflicts and inhibitions. She’s no better than those Catholic girls Billy Joel sang about, but Rachel – who, we’re told, hasn’t had sex for at least three years – hides behind Buddhism to mask her suppressed sexuality. She’s another holier-than-thou stick-in-the-mud misusing religion as a rationalization for repression. In one of Noble‘s early scenes, after watching a DVD starring Aaron, Rachel starts to fantasize about having sex with him. But this individual is so uptight that not only does she stop herself from having an affair with the star, but from even allowing herself to self-stimulate.
Hardly a role model, in a Q&A with the talent after a private screening of Noble, Kerr actually expressed being irritated at her sexually frustrated character. Like most pedants this guru isn’t as knowledgeable about the secrets and meaning of life as she pretends to be. Rachel is a know-it-all who desperately needs some carnal knowledge, and it’s frankly annoying and gets on your nerves (including of said actress) that she’s cloaking herself in proverbial Buddhist robes to disguise her dysfunction.
The low budget indie’s repetitive will-they/won’t-they and verbal sparring about her hang-ups becomes tiresome and redundant. In the hands of a better screenwriter, Rachel’s actual lack of insight and enlightenment could have been developed more, like the hypocritical missionary in the classic short story “Rain” – but, alas, McDonald is no Maugham.
In this day and age where African Americans are being murdered by cops for, among other things, the heinous crime of “looking while Black,” Noble includes a noteworthy encounter between Aaron and the LAPD. The police overreaction is so astounding and out of proportion to Aaron’s infractions of the rules of his house arrest, that it made me think: If this character wasn’t a movie star and Caucasian, the cops would probably have given Aaron a “warning shot” in the back of his skull. This actually might be the most compelling scene in the entire movie.
It’s also interesting to note that in Hamlin’s very first role after Mad Men – which ends at a Big Sur meditation retreat – he stars in none other than a movie about meditation.
Beneath its Buddhist veneer, Noble is yet another autumn-male / summer-female flick. But most moviegoers will probably feel that this verbose exercise in didacticism, a case study in how not to make a propaganda picture, fails with its ignoble protagonists to dramatize its path to higher consciousness. Because the highest wisdom lies in the fifth noble truth: That enlightening films must also be entertaining – otherwise, write a pamphlet or Zen kōan.
The Fourth Noble Truth opens June 5 in Los Angeles. Watch for national release.
The Fourth Noble Truth
Director: Gary T. McDonald
87 minutes, no MPAA rating