Part of the problem is Hartley's distinct style, which, if you're a fan, you already know well. Characters often speak slowly, pausing pensively for dramatic or comedic effect. Conversations -- and camera angles -- are unexpectedly funny and skewed, dabbling in established genres. When this approach has purpose or emotion (as in Henry Fool), it works. When it runs in circles, as in the second-half of Fay Grim, it exists only for the "art" and can be annoying as hell.
Parker Posey plays Fay, a single mother living off residuals from her incarcerated poet brother Simon (the amusing, deadpan James Urbaniak). When Fay is visited by two FBI grunts -- including Jeff Goldblum, spewing Hartley's funniest dialogue with remarkable speed and skill -- she learns her husband's diaries may be endangering her screwy family, U.S. security, and the well-being of assorted nations. If Henry Fool was a small film poking a stick at intellect and fame, Fay Grim is a broad espionage satire with Posey's unlikely heroine making ridiculously cryptic trips to Paris and Turkey.
If you haven't seen Henry Fool, here's a little non-spoiler background: A wandering scribbler named Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) urges the quiet Simon to write; the result is a novel-sized poem, a completely indescribable work that makes Simon instantly legendary while his mentor wallows in obscurity. If you've seen Henry Fool and are wondering how Simon ended up in jail, it's all explained.
And that need to "explain" the first movie, and the decade in between films, gives Fay Grim most of its zip in the first act. As he's done with other standard storytelling styles, Hartley draws insightful laughs from the very idea of a sequel, with an exposition that mocks having to provide backstory and fill in the blanks. Led by Posey's charming, tongue-in-cheek performance, the cast churns out layers of contrived dialogue meant to both inform and wink at the audience. The writer/director even inserts a couple of spare, funny flashbacks.
When Fay Grim, both the film and the character, jet abroad, you can feel the film unravel. Posey gets an opportunity at some cute physical humor (let's just say she's forced to hide a cell phone set to "vibrate") and she never loses energy through an unnecessarily long narrative. But she's given the Herculean task of holding up a film that, at some point, stops being about anything.
Hartley's ambitious creativity shines a light on the silliness of national paranoia, spies and spy movies, and even the circuitous relationship between terrorists and the rest of the world. But once his ideas are established, there's very little that feels at stake, a contrast to his treatment of people and issues in the final act of Henry Fool. Hartley's skill is in creating worlds that are just slightly inaccessible -- but this one is also too distant.
According to Urbaniak, a friend and collaborator of Hartley's, the writer/director imagined these characters long before creating Henry Fool, and is now considering a third film to revolve around Fay's son, Ned (Liam Aiken). When it's pointed out that the scope of Hartley's locations is ever-expanding, Urbaniak jokingly imagines the third chapter set in outer space. Now that would be distant.
Note: Fay Grim will be released in theaters, on DVD, and on HDNet television simultaneously.
Reviewed at the 2007 Independent Film Fest of Boston.
In Theaters: Thursday 27th September 2007
Box Office USA: $61.8k
Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 44%
Fresh: 39 Rotten: 49
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Hal Hartley
Screenwriter: Hal Hartley
Starring: Parker Posey as Fay Grim, D.J. Mendel as Father Lang, Liam Aiken as Ned Grim, Megan Gay as Principal, Jasmin Tabatabai as Milla, Chuck Montgomery as Angus James, James Urbaniak as Simon Grim, John Keogh as Prosecutor, Claudia Michelsen as Judge, Jeff Goldblum as Agent Fulbright, Leo Fitzpatrick as Carl Fogg
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