Synopsis: Fay Grim (Parker Posey) is afraid her son Ned (Liam Aiken) will turn out like his father, Henry, who has been a fugitive for seven years. Fay’s brother, Simon, is serving a prison sentence for helping Henry escape the country. Adding to her trials, Fay is approached by a CIA agent (Jeff Goldblum) to help find Henry’s missing notebooks in exchange for Simon’s freedom. The mission escalates into a global con-game that plunges Fay deep into the deadly politics of espionage.
Fay Grim 7.75
eyelights: the cast. Fay Grim’s outfits. the espionage intrigue. the score.
eyesores: the editing of the action sequences.
“Why is it, when someone starts talking about civilization, I hear the sound of machine guns?”
Finally, after months, if not years, I have gotten the chance to see ‘Fay Grim’.
Let me explain: ‘Fay Grim’ pretty much litters the landscape in my neck of the woods; you can find copies everywhere, in dust bins, second hand shops, …etc. Having been pulled to the sight of Parker Posey climbing a roof in a gothic/Victorian garb (with a hint of thigh showing), it was torture to constantly see this DVD and not get the chance to watch it.
The thing is, ‘Fay Grim’ is a sequel to a film called ‘Henry Fool‘. They’re both written and directed by Hal Hartley, and they both feature the same principal cast; you very much have to see the first one to watch this one. Unfortunately, finding ‘Henry Fool’ was near-impossible: aside from one local video store, I couldn’t get my hands on it.
However, I hate renting. I only rent when it’s absolutely necessary, when I can’t find what I’m looking for elsewhere; I find that paying for something that you can’t keep is pointless when you can pay the same amount or a little bit more to own it – meaning that you can enjoy it more than once. So I went on a quest to find ‘Henry Fool’, a relatively rare title.
I only just recently found it at an acceptable price and, the moment it came in, I ramped it up at the top of my list – and ‘Fay Grim’ along with it (full disclosure: I had eventually relented and bought the latter, even though I didn’t have the other one, all because of that picture of Parker Posey. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind)!
While I had mixed feelings about ‘Henry Fool’, I must say that I rather enjoyed ‘Fay Grim’. It’s a very different film, however: whereas the first was a quirky drama, this new one is an espionage thriller with all sorts of complexities – like its predecessor, it remains dialogue-based, except that it serves up all sorts of political intrigue along the way.
The plot boils down to this:
Seven years after the events of the first movie, Fay Grim (Henry Fool’s spouse) is approached by the CIA to track down the books that Henry had been writing, believing that they could contain U.S. government secrets that would jeopardize their national security. Incredulous, having read Henry’s wretched works, Fay agrees on only one condition: that her brother, Simon, is released from prison.
So off she goes to Europe, where she gets entangled with all sorts of characters, in a quest to find those books. Soon she discovers that the books are wanted not just by the CIA, but by multiple other governments and groups. Meanwhile, Simon, with the help of Henry’s publisher and Fay’s son, is trying to decrypt Henry’s writings, in order to reveal its secrets. Very soon, they will discover that everything they knew about Henry was wrong.
The whole principal cast returned for this film, with a few new faces added to the mix:
- Parker Posey is a commanding presence as Fay Grim. Even in the first one, where she had a smaller part, she made Fay central to any scene she was in. But, with all the attention focused on her, she totally steals the show: she gave Fay enough intelligence to make her part in this story believable, but also enough uncertainty and lack of sophistication for her to seem real. And her little quirks are spot on.
- James Urbaniak plays Simon Grim. The main character of the first picture, he’s now relegated to a secondary figure, working in the background while his sister is out on her adventure. Urbaniak is as terrific as ever; he just doesn’t get as much to work with. Strange how his character seems more intelligent here than he did in the first – was it the years of jail time that did it?
- Thomas Jay Ryan returns as Henry Fool. No longer the catalyst of the film, and with very limited screen time, I was able to enjoy him more. Ryan also played him slightly better, edgier. He himself says that he played him differently in the first picture because he had a different understanding of the character. With this second script, everything’s changed – and, consequently, so has his performance.
- Liam Aiken only had a few minutes in ‘Henry Fool’ as Ned Grim, Fay’s son, but he left quite an impression; I just couldn’t believe how old he seemed for a six year old. That same vibe still comes through, but it’s not as jarring coming from a teenager than a small child. Aiken makes Ned seem smart – but not necessarily wiser- than his years. And troubled inside. I would love to see what happens to Ned next.
- Chuck Montgomery is Angus James, Simon’s publisher. Simon’s books haven’t been doing as well as they used to, so, in a fit of desperation, Angus decides that he’ll publish Henry’s books even though he thinks they’re rubbish. He needs a hit and, by virtue of being associated with Simon, Angus thinks Henry could attract attention and sales. Montgommery again plays him straight and entirely believable.
- Jeff Goldblum makes his debut in the series as Agent Fulbright, a CIA operative in charge of tracking down Henry’s books. After questioning Fay, he proposes that she take a complicit part in the retrieval of the tomes. Goldblum is more authoritative and less quirky than usual here, but his delivery is strange: sometimes he delivered complete speeches without a breath or a pause. It gave the character a unique flavour, but not an entirely realistic one contextually.
- Leo Fitzpatrick (of ‘Kids‘ fame) plays the part of Fulbright’s sidekick, Carl Fogg. Obviously, Hartley was having fun with his characters’ names again, pairing up Fulbright and Fogg. Fitzpatrick feels awkward in the part, but it has everything to do with the way he delivers his lines, as though he had just stepped out of the dentist’s chair – because, otherwise, he’s an excellent actor.
- Saffron Burrows has a small part as Juliet, one of many opposing players. While she is arresting to watch, I found her ill cast as an operative. She may be a decent actress, but she just doesn’t fit the part; she looks too much like a model to pass unnoticed, to be involved with discreet field work. She also doesn’t look tough, so her action sequences didn’t pass muster.
Which brings me to one of two things that bothered me with the picture: the action sequences. Now, I realize that the film was made on an extremely restrained budget, but I don’t understand why every bit of action was reduced to freeze frames instead of simply letting the camera roll. It was jarring stylistically, but also because it slowed down the pace of what should have been exciting moment.
I get that this is likely not something that Hartley is familiar with or comfortable doing – from what I can tell his comfort zone lies in talkies. But he wrote the script, knowing full well that he would be directing it. So I don’t understand why he chose to insert action sequences if he felt unable to do them, or why he didn’t just read up on it or practice. Perhaps he purposely chose this style for a reason, but it’s a miserable failure.
The other thing that bothered me about ‘Fay Grim’ is how it renders ‘Henry Fool’ totally implausible: Fool wouldn’t come off as such a loser in the first one if he was all that he appears to be in its follow-up. Also, he wouldn’t have lost faith in his books and given up if they were nearly as authentic and valuable as he claimed they were – and ended up being. He would have known all along and would not have let criticism dispirit him.
But, all in all, ‘Fay Grim’ was rollicking good fun. There are some truly amusing moments (the scene when Fay decides to hide her cel phone in her underwear so that she wouldn’t be found out produced some amusing bits). It’s not your average Hollywood spy thriller, but it makes it all the more enjoyable; it has a human element to it that one doesn’t usually find in the genre.
I have to applaud Hartley for bringing back his characters a decade later and producing an even more enjoyable story – and one that is both more relevant and representative of our times, post 9-11. In throwing a bunch of regular folks into an international conspiracy, he managed to give an interesting perspective on the new world order all the while dishing out subtle comedy.
‘Fay Grim’ is anything but. For all the character’s gothic attire, this picture is refreshing and relatively realistic. It’s well worth seeing.
Date of viewing: July 23, 2013