Henry Fool

Henry FoolSynopsis: Acclaimed writer/director Hal Hartley’s (Amateur, Flirt) Henry Fool is a Faustian black comedy that will leave you screaming with laughter at its wild mix of vulgarity, antic humor and deeply-felt-emotion. Intense, nerdy young garbage-man Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) sulks through a sexless, humiliating lower-class existence. He shares a house in Queens, New York, with his clinically depressed mother Mary (Maria Porter) and sarcastic, promiscuous sister Fay (Parker Posey). Into their mundane existence comes Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a freewheeling, depraved faux intellectual writer who inspires the repressed Simon to come out of his shell by writing a book-length poem. He also begins an affair with Fay, the two making love at the most awkwardly inappropriate moments. At Henry’s goading, Simon timidly peddles his manuscript to an unscrupulous publisher, setting in motion an unforeseen chain of events both tragic and hilarious.

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Henry Fool 7.0

eyelights: James Urbaniak. Parker Posey. the original plot.
eyesores: Thomas Jay Ryan. the editing. the pace. the illogical final act.

Henry Fool: “The greats all say the same thing: little. And what little there is to be said is immense. Or, in other words, follow your own genius to where it leads without regard for the apparent needs of the world at large, which, in fact, has no needs as such, but, rather, moments of exhaustion in which it is incapable of prejudice. We can only hope to collide with these moments of unselfconsciousness. This divine fatigue.”

Who the heck is Henry Fool? But, most importantly, who the heck is Hal Hartley, writer-director of this picture?

Until recently, I knew nothing of him. Heck, I barely know anything about him now. My curiosity was piqued by the many copies of ‘Fay Grim’ that were floating around in my town’s second-hand shops. It features a picture of Parker Posey climbing a roof in what I consider to be a slightly alluring get-up.

Even though it clearly denoted that ‘Fay Grim’ was a sequel to ‘Henry Fool’, I eventually picked it up when a great deal came my way. I figured that I would simply track down the first part at some point. Then the search began, and lasted for weeks, months; I couldn’t find ‘Henry Fool’ anywhere.

I eventually asked my local indie movie rental shop about it and it so happened that Hal Hartley had been in town recently. What a coincidence. And it also happened that they had ‘Henry Fool’. His copy of ‘Henry Fool’, actually, had just been rented out right before I came in; he said that people had been clamoring for Hartley films around -and since- the time of his visit.

I kept that in mind, but proceeded with my search, in the hope that I could buy instead of renting, something I hate doing. But what stayed with me is that Hal Hartley seems to have a following. By this point his name was on my mind, and I was ever more intent on finding ‘Henry Fool’. Which I did. On eBay (one of my favourite go-tos for hard-to-find media).

Less than a week after buying it, the DVD came in. Finally! I could find out what all the fuss was about, and get around to ‘Fay Grim’!

‘Henry Fool’ is the story of Simon, Fay and Mary Grim and the impact that Henry Fool, a mysterious stranger who rents their basement apartment, has on each of them. In particular, Henry has a significant impact on Simon, who is a socially-inept garbage man until Fool suggests that he write down his thoughts – after which he begins to write poetry and becomes a sensation.

The interesting dichotomy here is how Simon begins as a nobody with no aspirations whatsoever, and rises to international stature with Fool’s help, while Fool begins as a seemingly “together” individual, but this impression is picked apart slowly to the extent that he’s no more interesting than Simon was at the onset. It’s a role-reversal of sorts, and I found this this fascinating to watch.

Unfortunately, after a fitfully hilarious start, the film seems to drag on endlessly. At a 140 minutes in length, it has plenty of time to tell its tale, but it doesn’t move quickly enough in its midsection, then tossing in a quick, disposable ending in the last 20 minutes. Oddly enough, the editing is such that it feels as though some footage is missing; it’s abrupt in a way that is unusual for a film of its length.

If only it had been as darkly hilarious as I was hoping it would be, then the length wouldn’t have been as much of an issue. The problem is that , with little action, the performances and the dialogues are crucial to the film’s enjoyment. It had its moments, but I hardly laughed or chuckled throughout. Admittedly, it,s quite possible that it was too subtle for me to grasp; I may have missed a lot of it.

The casting didn’t always help: while I was amused by some of the dialogue, I had a terrible time with Thomas Jay Ryan’s interpretation of Henry Fool. To me, he came off as a cross between Bruce McCulloch and Russell Crowe, with the delivery/intensity of Kevin Costner. What could have been a powerful part was muted by Ryan’s neutered tone and presence. As a central force of the picture, this was problematic.

Having said that, I found James Urbaniak’s turn as Simon pitch-perfect; he made this loser appear completely stunted, incapable of communicating with others, of getting out of his shell. It’s only as he begins to write and finds a champion in Henry that he begins to gain assurance and stands on his own, at times even taking stands for his friends and family. He was excellent in ‘American Splendor‘, but he’s superb here.

Parker Posey was also quite good. I’m not a huge fan of her because she often plays shrill, whiny or plain old unpleasant characters, but she is a good actress. With her performance, Fay earns her last name: she is sullen, miserable, seemingly incapable of joy, the only glimmers of light being her random sexual encounters with men she picks up in the local bar – the first of which provoked some priceless exchanges with Simon.

I really enjoyed the comic book-ish aspect of the characters’ names. I was amused that Hartley’s title character ends up being a fool, that the morose family members whose lives seems absolutely meaningless, are called Grim, and that a Republican politician who is fanning the fires of insecurity and paranoia is called Feer (sic). It’s extremely obvious, but I suspect that Holbrook was purposely being unsubtle. Which amused me.

I also liked Henry Fool’s propensity for pretentiousness, rambling on in faux-philosophical ruminations that impress at first glance, but that are ultimately the ammunition of college daydreamers and bar-room intellectuals. Once we get past the alluring veneer, we discover that his words are in fact meaningless, that he talks a good game, but can’t support his verbiage with education or ability. I’ve met people like this, so I was amused.

I also enjoyed the musical accompaniment. Hal Hartley not only wrote and directed the picture, but he composed and actually performed the music himself (with some help). Now that’s what I call auteur! The music was nothing too intricate, but it was pleasant, enjoyable, perhaps even a little playful. I could be way off course but, for me, it evoked Michael Nyman and Mychael Danna to some degree.

All this to say that ‘Henry Fool’ was a good, but unexciting, film. It was interesting to watch Fool’s credibility get slowly stripped, his every assertion proven false, and Simon rise up from Henry’s ashes; this was the key element of the picture for me. But I wasn’t bowled over, nor do I find the film remarkable in any way, even though I do recognize that it is a quality motion picture; I didn’t like it enough to revisit it in the near future.

Well, as Fool would wisely (!) submit, “You can’t argue about taste”. I just hope that ‘Fay Grim’ ends up being more satisfying than its predecessor. Perhaps I will finally understand what makes Hal Hartley’s work so appealing to some.

Henry Fool: “Certain work needs to be experienced all at once in order for one to appreciate the full force of its character.”

Date of viewing: July 22, 2013

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