The book by Hal Hartley
(discounted Paperback from Amazon)
Hal Hartley, in his latest espionage thriller, need not have kept his camera tilted and filtered (Sarah Cawley cinematography) in order to keep the affair on screen off balance -- there's enough of that in the story itself, the dialogue and the surreal style. But, that's what he does do, and the result is something between a device from the the black and white hardcase mysteries of the forties and an alternate take on "The French Connection." Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet would be at home in these shadows.
In fact, this is a rare sequel in the indie film world and no less so for coming seven years after its predecessor, "Henry Fool." Referring back to that, then, for the sake of clarity and preparation, Fay Grim (Parker Posey), a purported nymphomaniac, met and married Henry Fool, a caustic, superior chain-smoker whom her brother Simon (James Urbaniak) invited into the family home to allow him to complete his memoires in a series of notebooks. Simon, who considers Fool his mentor and role model, winds up writing a poem that is successful in literary circles, while Henry's book, called his "Confession," is a literary disaster, something close to gibberish.
But it's all about more than literary accomplishment. Simon's adoration of his role model is such that when Henry accidentally killed a neighbor, Simon assumed Henry's identity in order to facilitate his escape. He, himself, wound up in prison where, with plenty of thinking time at his disposal, came to the conviction that Henry's work was too inept to be purposefully so, and likely masks something of significant value within its encoded text.
At the start of this installment, everyone is in agreement that it is coded and that it contains secrets of value to the U.S. government. By this time, however, it's gone missing, and CIA agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) is on the trail. For that, he comes to Fay to ask her cooperation. After informing her that Henry is dead -- a concept that at first devastates her, but which she slowly adapts to with some distrust -- he declares his interest in the lost notebooks. It seems that two of them are in the hands of the French police. As Henry's widow, she's the only person who can demand her husband's property with any expectation of getting it.
Fine. But for her participation she demands Fulbright gets brother Simon released from prison. She is not the dumb wife simpleton that slick-talking Fulbright assumed. The master investigator has no clue how cunning she is.
Thus begins a venture into international intrigue and clashing spycraft. If the encoded content of the "Confession" were as prized to the literary community as it is to the spy agencies, it'd win an Edgar Award. Fay, a novice in the spy game, gets fully involved, following cryptic orders from unseen secret agents such as the delicious Nikita-like Juliet (Saffron Burrows) whose task is magnified by Fay's tendency to pursue her own agenda.
Above all, the off-beat, off-the-wall rhythms of this set-up and its twists of direction is ideal territory for the inimitable Ms. Posey ("The OH in Ohio," "Best in Show") whose taste for it shows in her total habitation of the role. Looking better than ever, (which is gorgeous to my eye) she is in the joyous outside-the-norm element she's carved out as one of the notably unique stylists among actors of her generation. This role is one more reason the indies owe her a debt of gratitude.
The script, for all its somewhat lunatic undercover gyrations, maintains a focused story line like an arrow in a forest whipping through the brush and hitting its tree of choice. This is Hartley's unerring mark as defined by his own screenwriting and editing, along with direction.
Burrows ("Troy," "Enigma") and Goldblum ("The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou") are choices that go perfectly with the prevailing comic ingenuity. Burrows hints at her real and underutilized star power while Goldblum has one of his perfect parts, which he makes the most of. Thomas Jay Ryan ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") has the character tilt necessary to convey Henry Fool with all the attributes of vulgarity, and disturbing rationality attributed to him. It's a good thing his character isn't mad. Jalal the humanistic terrorist (Anatole Taubman) is another fine conceit, well played, and the film can boast an ensemble cast of pros throughout.
Hartley scores in yet another department with original music that attunes well to the tensions and heart-stopping moments that pervade the escapade. (Get a load of his Henry Fool soundtrack -- see link below)
While I'm perfectly aware that this film isn't doing so well with the critics, I can only explain my departure from the general thinking as my taste for an antic sense of make-believe with a backbone of logic and subtle, off-beat humor. Add Posey to that formulation and I'm a willing captive to its adventurous, if bumpy, ride to unpredictable destinations.
~~ Jules Brenner
The Henry Fool Soundtrack
The Henry Fool DVD
(By Hal Hartley)
The Henry Fool Soundtrack