- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

“Incident at Loch Ness” is a feature-length Hollywood inside joke. “Getting it” presupposes a familiarity with the mystique of the German filmmaker Werner Herzog. The art-house director used to specialize in arduous, globe-trotting productions such as “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo,” which hinged on the crazed personality of a leading man, the late Klaus Kinski.

Mr. Herzog is now discovered in Los Angeles, where he evidently resides and consents to be an impeccably deadpan straight man for Zak Penn, a prominent screenwriter (“Antz,” “The Last Action Hero,” “Behind Enemy Lines,” “Charlie’s Angels,” etc.). Mr. Penn, we learn, aspires to make his directing debut as a hoaxster in plain sight.

The first sequence invites us to rubberneck at a private movieland dinner party. The best known guest is actor Jeff Goldblum, a red herring. The host, Mr. Herzog, is said to be launching a documentary project, “Enigma of Loch Ness,” with the solicitous and ambitious Mr. Penn as producer. Other collaborators are also present, playing themselves, notably cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, fretting about historical re-creations, a nonissue for Mr. Herzog, who doesn’t plan any.

Mr. Penn acts surprised to discover a camera crew already in the house. A more noted cinematographer, John Bailey, is hovering around Mr. Herzog while preparing a profile titled “Herzog in Wonderland.” (The house itself is on Wonderland Avenue.)

When the location shifts to Scotland, rival crews, or at least cameramen, intrude on each other. Mr. Bailey remains glued to Mr. Herzog while Mr. Berestain endeavors to compile footage for “Enigma.” Employing a technique he calls “one eye open,” Mr. Berestain focuses his right on the camera lens but keeps the left scouting the horizon, in case there’s a sudden Loch Ness monster sighting.

The indications that “Incident” is not entirely to be trusted start to accumulate at the party and grow unmistakable once the crew is on the loch. Mr. Penn lets the cat out of the bag about his own self-parody when confessing, while mounted on an exercise bike, “I’m sick of being in the background.” The character he portrays ends up forcing himself into the foreground by fomenting embarrassments, crises and catastrophes.

The movie’s comic scheme consists of portraying Werner Herzog as the most earnest of documentarians, a paragon sabotaged at every turn by his producer’s egomaniacal interference. The trouble at the lake begins with such absurdities as insisting that members of Team Enigma wear matching jumpsuits and foisting a so-called “cryptozoologist” on Mr. Herzog as a consultant. A pest called Michael Karnow, this interloper is the funniest brainstorm in the script, a crackpot who makes a scientific study of phantom beasties.

On the harmless and perhaps exploitable side, there’s a bombshell sonar operator, Kitana Baker, basically hired to dive into the frigid lake clad only in a bikini.

Not content with merely crass or goofball stunts, the lunatic Penn becomes a threat to everyone’s survival. Ultimately, it flatters his vanity to imagine that he must “live with the guilt” of jeopardizing lives during a harebrained movie expedition.

As the butt of the inside joke, Mr. Penn gives himself very persuasively to fatheaded caricature. The catch is that “Incident” is too much of an inside joke.

It’s hard enough for a foreign film or documentary to find an audience. How is a postmodern jest about a documentary about a foreign director filming a documentary going to find one?

**

TITLE: “Incident at Loch Ness”

RATING: PG-13 (adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and facetious elements of violence and suspense)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Zak Penn. Cinematography by John Bailey. Production design by Jackie Smith. Costume design by Annie Dunn. Music by Henning Lohner.

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

WEB SITE: www.incidentatlochnessthemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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