Watching Hal Hartley's "Henry Fool" is like reading a fine novel in which we come to know its people so well that their fates take on a mythic dimension.
After 10 years, five features and numerous shorts, Hartley approaches his 40th birthday with a maturity that his previous features, filled with quirky, frustrated individuals, many of them living in blue-collar Long Island, only hinted at. The result is a career milestone and a film that could become a landmark in American independent cinema.
That his two principal figures are as eccentric as any Hartley ever imagined gives him the space and distance to invite us to ever so gradually experience a sense of recognition with people with whom most of us would be hard-pressed to identify. Yet we share their experiences in self-awareness, their discovery of the meaning and conflicts of friendship and an acknowledgment of the unpredictable workings of fate. At this point it should be hastily mentioned that "Henry Fool" is a comedy, albeit a very dark one, and sometimes hilarious.
Thomas Jay Ryan's Henry could have wandered into the lives of Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), his layabout sister Fay (Parker Posey) and their demented mother Mary (Maria Porter) straight from the saloon of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh." On parole for a particularly foolish and entirely deplorable crime, the seedy, unshaven Henry has a certain boozy, beefy charm and assumes a grand air of intellectual authority that some might find a bit much at Harvard or Oxford. He says he's working on his "Confessional," which is to electrify and confound the world, but in the meantime he ends up laboring alongside Simon as a garbage man.
Painfully thin, profoundly introverted, Simon, a kind of ultimate geek, looks like Woody Woodpecker with thick glasses. Yet Simon sets the plot in motion when he allows Henry to read his work-in-progress, a vast poem that Henry pronounces in his professorial manner as possessed of "profound instincts." Henry's announced determination to see Simon published and in turn to see his own work in print has long-ranging, cataclysmic consequences.
For a considerable time you worry that Henry, for whatever perverse reasons, is simply conning the hapless Simon, but Hartley has much more in mind. In fact, his film, at just the right moment, shifts into high gear, with "Henry Fool" suddenly expanding its scope and vision. The film's scale remains intimate while Henry and Simon become figures in an epic tale of interlocked, ever-shifting destinies, requiring of them both either to rise or to fall in the face of life's big moral choices.
Within this grand unraveling, Hartley, while probing the mysteries of the human heart and psyche, has considerable fun with the ambiguities and treacheries of artistic reputation and with the folly of the kind of criticism that merely passes judgment on a work--while allowing that some stuff is just plain bad. "Henry Fool" soars but it's grounded in the muck of life's realities. In this it recalls James Joyce's "Ulysses"; Hartley in fact has cited Joyce and Samuel Beckett in general, and the legends of Faust and Kasper Hauser in specific, as key inspirations.
A young actor with considerable stage experience, Ryan, in his film debut, and Urbaniak, also from the stage and in his first key film, just about wipe you out with their seemingly endless resources, not merely of technique but of emotion and perception. Parker strikes all the brittle attitudes that have made her such a vivid presence on the independent film scene, then moves way beyond them to show us a woman with an unexpected strength and capacity for love.
With "Henry Fool" Hartley has done something fairly unusual in American movies, Hollywood or otherwise: He fills the screen with unapologetically smart people and then shows us that intelligence alone is not much defense against the workings of outrageous fortune.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality, violence and language. Times guidelines: The film is blunt about bodily functions and candid about sex.
Thomas Jay Ryan: Henry Fool
James Urbaniak: Simon Grim
Parker Posey: Fay
Maria Porter: Mary
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Writer-director-producer-composer Hal Hartley. Executive producers Larry Meistrich, Daniel J. Victor, Keith Abell. Cinematographer Mike Spiller. Editor Steve Hamilton. Costumes Jocelyn Joson. Production designer Steve Rosenzweig. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes.
* At selected theaters in Los Angeles and Orange counties.