Friday, December 26, 2008

Movies #30 and #31: Henry Fool and Fay Grim

Today we review Hal Hartley's 1997 indie classic Henry Fool and his 2007 sequel Fay Grim---a strange choice for sequeldom to be sure. In some ways they don't even deserve to be reviewed as companion films. They are, perhaps, better pieces of work when viewed apart from one another than as a pair. I dare say it might even be best to watch Henry Fool first and then wait ten years to watch Fay Grim, but once you watch Henry Fool it will be impossible to resist the allure of revisiting these characters as soon as possible.
While my own screenwriting ambitions have taken a back seat these past few years, I largely credit Hartley's 1992 Simple Men with inspiring me to pursue writing as, first, a hobby, and then, later, a career (and now as some hideous demon lurking just beneath the surface). His singular style as an indie auteur struck all the right notes for me. His films were eccentric, witty, moody, awkward, cool and, at its core, although disguised, was an irrepressible fondness for the strange but beautiful connections people can make. I wanted to be Hal Hartley. Unfortunately, my writing style never came close to resembling his unique voice, but the desire to create something as compelling as Simple Men eventually sent me to grad school to get my M.A. in Screenwriting. In this respect I sort of blame Hal Hartley for my moderately useless degree, an excessive amount of student loan debt, and the many many hours I spent toiling away on an unproduced script for Pumpkinhead 3. After seeing Henry Fool, he is forgiven.
Despite being a Hartley fan, and despite Henry Fool generally being his best reviewed film, it somehow slipped off my radar at the time of its release. I'd seen snippets here and there, but the film went unwatched year after year after year. I finally put it in my DVD queue about a year ago, and even then I still kept piling films above it so it would never rise to the top. Finally, thanks to an odd confluence of events in my queue, Henry Fool was mailed to me...where it languished for another three weeks before I finally settled in to watch it.

Like other Hartley films, Henry Fool is full of witty, intellectual dialogue, off-beat characters, self-indulgent rantings, and hard-to-grasp meanings. One is never quite sure just how serious Hartley wants you to take the story, and sometimes you're not even certain what that story might be about or what he'd like you to feel about whatever it might be about. In a nutshell, Henry Fool, played with delicious zest by Thomas Jay Ray, is a mysterious wanderer who enters the lives of a family in Queens. He's a chain-smoking "poet" with a complicated past who seems to combine qualities of Dennis Leary, George Plympton, and Charles Bukowski. Chicks, obviously, love him.

He is, in many ways, an abomination of nature (and his past is genuinely dark)...and yet there is something so intriguing about him that he's able to inspire a lowly garbage man, Simon Grim, to become a Nobel Prize-winning poet. The story then becomes an interesting examination of art v. morality v. capitalism, while simultaneously revealing Henry for what he really is. It's a decidedly ambitious film. Parts works, others don't, but Henry Fool has that rare effect of lingering in the psyche hours, days, even (now) weeks after its viewing. It's imperfect perfection.
One can easily go through the script and find scenes to excise that would make it a tighter and more mainstream narrative, but therein lies some of the pleasure of a Hal Hartley film. You could almost use the aphorism of "whatever doesn't ruin the movie makes a Hal Hartley film stronger."

The ending of Henry Fool is somewhat ambiguous, but that ambiguity is completely obliterated within the opening few moments of the ten-years-later sequel, Fay Grim. Fay, played by indie-queen Parker Posey, is the wife and mother of Henry's child from the first movie. Without giving too much away of either film, suffice it to say that this sequel (co-produced by Mark Cuban) takes this franchise in an entirely different and somewhat unwelcome direction. Whereas the first movie is a bizarre, simple character piece shot entirely in Queens, the second becomes a tongue-in-cheek international espionage thriller spanning from New York to Paris to Istanbul...except the further the film progresses, the less firmly planted that tongue becomes. As Ty Burr of the Boston Globe put it, "this is something like setting a sequel to "Little Miss Sunshine " on a submarine and asking the cast to deliver their lines in Esperanto. Why go to the trouble if you're going to start from scratch anyway? The answer is: Artist's prerogative."

It's almost astonishing to watch the film get increasingly serious in its tone, daring the audience to go along with the idea that Fay Grim, an underachieving single mother from Queens, could somehow transform into James Bond-lite. Sound preposterous? It is. And it isn't. Are you catching my drift about Hal Hartley's movies just yet? They're very hard to nail down. The absurd becomes ordinary, and the ordinary becomes absurd. That's not to say that Fay Grim is a good movie. In truth, it was hard to conceal my disappointment for it having seen Henry Fool just a few days prior. As I said, they don't even seem to go together. Still, there are enough moments in Fay Grim to justify its existence and, once again, the character of Henry Fool steals the show. Evidently, Hartley and the cast plan on revisiting these characters at least once more, perhaps in another ten years and, no doubt, will turn expectations on their ear.

Henry Fool Grade 8/10
Fay Grim Grade 5/10


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