The posters for the new film "Incident at Loch Ness" suggest that audiences are in for a spooky, action-packed monster movie. The posters lie.
Actually, the film's entire ad campaign is a classic case of misdirection, as is the movie itself. I don't mean that in a bad way. When the magician-raconteur Ricky Jay shows up to do some card tricks in a party scene early on, it's a clue to the cinematic sleight of hand in store. In fact, if you like documentaries, Werner Herzog, and surprises, I seriously recommend you read the rest of this review after seeing the movie.
"Incident," at first blush, is one of those unmaking-of-a-movie movies like "Hearts of Darkness" or "Lost in La Mancha," where everything goes catastrophically wrong for a hapless filmmaker. In this case, the subject is Herzog, the great, eccentric German director whose struggles making 1982's "Fitzcarraldo" were already documented in Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams."
Now Herzog is making a documentary called "The Enigma of Loch Ness," and it's less about Nessie than about the human need to believe in monsters. That's the film he's trying to make, anyway. The documentary's Hollywood producer, former "Last Action Hero" screenwriter Zak Penn, appears to have crasser ideas, such as surreptitiously hiring a former Playboy model to pose as the ship's sonar operator and building a remote-controlled Loch Ness Monster, just in case.
On hand is another documentary crew, headed by cinematographer John Bailey, to film Herzog filming "Enigma," and it's their cameras that capture the ensuing fiasco. The crypto-zoologist hired by Penn turns out to be a lunatic, the boat captain is in open rebellion, and the model, Kitana Baker, almost contracts pneumonia after Penn makes her dive into the loch in a G-string bikini. And something out there keeps rippling the water.
If it all feels a little too rich, too perfectly absurd, to be true, well . . . that's because it's not. At a certain point, "Incident at Loch Ness" reveals itself to be a droll hoax on the part of Penn, who's the real director of the film, and Herzog, who lends his personal mythology and sense of gamesmanship to the proceedings. Essentially, this is the art-house version of "The Blair Witch Project," an engaging fraud with interesting if not groundbreaking things to say about fiction, nonfiction, and the impossibility of ever truly "documenting" anything.
Once the cat is out of the bag, "Incident" becomes simultaneously entertaining and disappointing. The moviemaking in-jokes are often terrifically funny, as when an enraged Penn pulls a gun on Herzog, just as Herzog supposedly did to Klaus Kinski on the set of "Fitzcarraldo." (It's a flare gun, it's unloaded, and Herzog icily informs Penn that the Kinski incident never even happened.) And it's certainly about time someone pulled the rug out from under the supposed truth of making-of documentaries and "reality" anything.
Yet there's something smug, even vaguely insulting, about the notion of spending so much time, money, and effort on a cinematic shell game, no matter how charmingly Borgesian it is. Despite the laughs, you feel like telling the filmmakers to get off their duffs and make a real movie. Or are Penn and Herzog insisting there's no such thing?
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Incident at Loch Ness