Hal Hartley's "Fay Grim" -- the austere but slightly slaphappy sequel to his most well-regarded movie, "Henry Fool" -- strikes me as something of an elaborate mistake, a wasted opportunity and a script Hartley should have discarded. But I liked it anyway. Hartley has taken the tale that began in "Henry" as a screwball literary satire -- about a youthful legendary epic poet (James Urbaniak's Simon Grim), his nymphomaniac sister Fay (Parker Posey) and her literary bum of a hubby, Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) -- and morphed it, through some really loony plot contrivances, into an urbane send-up of international spy thrillers, with a decidedly left-wing political slant.
In the first movie, we left the story with Simon in jail, despite his Nobel Prize-winning epic poem, and Henry on the run after failing to seduce the world with his unseen "masterpiece," "The Confessions." Now, nine or so years later, Fay is contacted by a fast-talking CIA agent named Fulbright (played by Jeff Goldblum, who was born to recite Hartley's fast, wacky dialogue), and it's discovered that "The Confessions," which had seemed to be simply a literary sham, was actually a book in code, revealing priceless government secrets and scandals.
Soon, Simon has been sprung from the slammer by Fay, and she is on her way to Paris and later Istanbul to locate Henry, who is mixed up with Arab terrorists. The rest of the outlandish plot mixes Hartley's usual hip, minimalist artsy scenes with a chic paranoia that suits a movie with characters named after movie suspense masters such as (Fritz) Lang and (Claude) Chabrol.
"Fay Grim" probably works better if you haven't seen "Henry Fool." If you put the two movies together in your mind, they don't really mesh, despite the presence of some old characters played by the same actors -- including that opportunistic lecher of a book publisher, Angus James (Chuck Montgomery).
Hartley himself is an expatriate living in Berlin with a Japanese wife, and "Fay Grim" often feels like the fantasy of a man displaced. The movie takes such a weird shift from the first, it's as if Hartley were reusing the old characters not because it made sense but because he has a lot on his mind right now about international politics and wanted to unload. (So why not make a different movie?)
I enjoyed a lot of it anyway, mostly because Hartley gives off such a feeling of kooky relish and high spirits even as he fumbles his plot away, and also because the cast is good. Along with Goldblum and Posey -- the latter working erotic wonders in one scene with a cell phone -- the best and most Hartleyesque performances are by Anatole Taubman as mild-mannered terrorist Jallal Said Khan and Liam Aiken as Ned, Henry and Fay's brainy teenage son. Still, Hartley might be better off either coming home or finding new characters -- and not stranding the old ones in stylishly ditsy esoterica such as "Fay Grim."