Henry Fool Movie Review

Like a French New Wave director, Hal Hartley has always embraced the world of the second-rate. Setting many of his films in a second-rate city (Hoboken, New Jersey) and tracking the lives of second-rate folks has gotten a lot of mileage in the indie circuit - and deservedly so, with small, vignette-like films like Simple Men and The Unbelievable Truth. Henry Fool is still one of his most ambitious movies - a serio-comic art piece that at least acknowledges the outside world - but it's deeply flawed. The script is full of promises that the movie fails to deliver, and few in the cast seem quite sure when and if they're supposed to be funny, earnest, or both. Hartley painted himself into a corner with this one, though he does use interesting paint.

The story turns mainly on the relationship between Queens garbage man Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) and Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a pretentious aesthete who drifts into Grim's life. Fool is thoroughly unlikeable - Ryan plays him as greasy, chain-smoking poseur, acting smarter than he actually is - but Simon clearly need somebody in his life. He's friendless, antisocial, and living with his mother and sister, who routinely berate him as retarded. Fool blathers on out his memoirs and opines about the difficult life of a genius ("An honest man is always in trouble," he opines), but he also encourages Simon to start writing himself. For Simon, that counts as friendship enough.

If this seems like weak comedic cannon fodder, it gets worse. Simon begins work on an epic poem that is, apparently, the most reprehensible, pornographic, and disgusting poem ever written. As the outrage against it - and Fool's enthusiasm for it - grows larger, Simon remains poker faced. Attempting to get into a publisher's door, a secretary tells him to have patience and "be reasonable." Simon looks at her and says, pointedly, "Why?" We never hear an extended quote from the poem, and we don't get much of a sense of how Simon himself feels about it. As for laugh lines, those mainly come from Simon's sister Fay (Parker Posey), who plays the un-moored, promiscuous loudmouth, the sort of role Posey's been engineered for ever since.

The third act confirms our worst suspicions about Fool himself, but by the time of the climax (which is too open-ended to be affecting) we've worked up a healthy distaste for everybody involved. Simon's too much of a cipher to be a hero, and Hartley never lets us get too intimate with him - why would he, of all people, have the power to produce a work of genius here. There's something in Henry Fool about the role of the artist in an increasingly uncaring and media-soaked world (which academic Camille Paglia riffs on in an amusing cameo), but Hartley's at a loss to do anything with it. It's all too big for Hartley, so the pleasures are mainly in small moments and well-framed shots. The pomposity of Henry Fool is supposed to be a subject of our mockery, but there's too much Fool-ishness in Fool itself.


Comments

Henry Fool Rating

" Grim "

Rating: R, 1997

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