2006Director: Hal Hartley
Cast: Parker Posey, Jeff Goldblum, James Urbaniak
enry Fool (1997) remains writer-director Hal Hartley’s last great film; in fact, it remains his last decent film. So it would seem only natural after a string of art-house misses beginning with the stilted end-of-days fable The Book of Life (1998), continuing with the ill-conceived satire No Such Thing (2001), and perhaps hitting a career low point with his ponderous and Orwell-light vision of the future The Girl From Monday (2005), that he would want to return to the material that elevated him from fringe-cinema prodigy to indie-film hero. Fool followed the titular character (Thomas Jay Ryan), a stranger who mentored Queens garbage man Simon Grim into writing controversial poetry which soon grew into a national sensation. Meanwhile, Henry had occasional sex with Simon’s sister Fay (Parker Posey) and toiled day and night writing his own “confession,” an interminable autobiography and manifesto that both Simon and his publisher determined to be “really quite bad.” Having failed as a writer, Henry soon took Simon’s place as the local garbage man whereas Simon went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Last time the audience saw them, Fay was raising Henry’s young son, and Henry was attempting to escape the country after killing an abusive neighbor. Plot-wise, Hartley certainly left the door open for a continuation, and hence Fay Grim (2006) picks up the events of Henry Fool, the film which won Hartley a screenwriting award from Cannes, seven years later.
For a few moments, at least, it seems as if Hartley the sardonic maverick has returned. His opening character introductions and re-introductions echo a wit reminiscent of Fool and other early-career delights, such as The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990). Abandoned by her fugitive husband Henry and living off the royalty checks from her brother Simon’s writing, the former borderline-nymphomaniac Fay sits on a church pillar nervously clutching a “How to Pray” book. Her fourteen-year-old son, Ned, has been expelled for lewd acts reminiscent of his father’s licentious deeds from the first film. Behind bars for aiding Henry in his escape from the country, Simon hypothesizes with his publisher, Angus (an amusing Chuck Montgomery), whether Henry’s famed confession could be something more than the puerile ramblings they deemed it in the first film. Henry Fool admirers especially will rejoice at the sight of these old dysfunctional friends in fresh settings, and Hartley’s peculiar comedic brand stays intact for the first ten minutes or so.
But once Hartley hurls his characters into a plot, Grim quickly devolves into a muddled bore. Soon Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) appears, a government agent confirming Simon and Angus’ suspicions that Henry’s confession was, in actuality, not a pile of dreck but instead an encrypted code revealing details vital to American central intelligence. Fulbright sends Fay to Paris to retrieve two volumes of Henry’s confession in exchange for Simon’s freedom, and thus begins a spiraling story full of more exposition and extraneous characters than any of Hartley’s previous films.
Indeed, Fay Grim hardly seems to be in communication with Henry Fool and suffers from the inevitable comparison. In the first film, the mysterious Henry proved someone strangely capable of sparking creativity in others through deriding, pontificating to, and fornicating with anyone within his vicinity. Hartley’s final reveal of the catalytic Henry as a poseur, an impostor as a tutor and a truly god-awful writer (not to mention a pedophile) propelled Henry Fool into a realm of brilliance that Hartley has not approached since. In this second chapter, Hartley reverses his characterization, redefining Henry and his writing as all too important and thus nullifying any of the first film’s conclusive irony. By the time Fulbright reveals that Henry was a CIA operative in Chile in 1973, Hartley has destroyed Fool’s grand designs of illusion. The notion that Henry is in fact some sort of underappreciated, overused rogue enemy of the state becomes inconceivable in the context of the first film and a literalization for which no one asked.
As Fay travels from her Queens house to Paris hotel rooms to Istanbul terrorist hideouts, the film becomes simultaneously a stillborn espionage thriller and a foggy treatise about the modern age of paranoia: modes equally pretentious and neither easily digestible. Still, the opening and a few smaller scenes spark with the enchanting absurdity from Henry Fool, such as when Angus, Ned and Simon attempt to decode Henry’s eight-volume confession through Paradise Lost verse and flashback scenes to Henry’s liaison with a stewardess and “erotic dancer sometimes” (Elina Lowensöhn). Yet Hartley seems impatient with the more intimate scenes of human ridiculousness that put him on the map and thus grafts onto them an “important” story, an overripe espionage plot at odds with his minimalist tendencies.
Oddly, Hartley does not give the still-radiant Posey much to do but traipse around in garters and look befuddled throughout a variety of European locales. For the last two acts, Fay proves nothing more than a foil for the rest of the plot and characters, an excuse for Hartley to relocate to Paris and bounce his lead character off a bevy of spies from the U.S., France, Israel and Afghanistan. Urbaniak gives another deliciously deadpan performance as the garbage-man-poet (now poet-criminal) Simon, and Jay Ryan, in a delayed appearance, briefly awakens the film from its slumber by instantly displaying all the magnetism that Henry’s reputation suggests. Goldblum’s droll monotone, meanwhile, fits perfectly into Hartley’s signature robotic rhythms; too bad his one-dimensional character exists simply to shuffle the plot along. As always, Hartley composes an affecting, sporadically transcendent film score, but by often restructuring the Henry Fool music into a dour reverberation, he reminds the audience what a joyless, labyrinthine mess he has assembled from the scraps of his first film.
Where does all this leave Hartley? With nearly two decades worth of work behind him, he is decidedly best when dissecting situational absurdity (The Unbelievable Truth, Henry Fool) or miraculously locating some type of twisted emotion in human alienation itself (Flirt, Trust). Lately, he has attempted a more global platform, whether he takes on the media (No Such Thing), governmental control (The Girl from Monday) or, in his work here, international diplomacy and terrorism. He continually stumbles in his criticism of forces beyond his reach and in so doing has lost his sense of humor almost entirely. Even some of the most loyal Hartley fans, including this one, seem to believe he has lost his way as of late. After Fay Grim, admirers may want to brace themselves for the possibility that the sly, wry Hal Hartley may be gone for good.
Fay Grim is now available on DVD.
By: Mike D’Alessandro
Published on: 2007-06-15