A Film by Hal Hartley
The newest film by under-exposed American director Hal Hartley (his fifth) won him a screenwriting award at Cannes, but you will be hard-pressed to find a screen on which it is appearing. Hollywood's domination of the movie distribution and exhibition industries is so complete that a monster-turkey like the late, unlamented Godzilla can open on 1,500 screens, while an international prize-winner like Hartley will be lucky if his film reaches ten percent of that many screens over the course of a year.
What Hartley has done best in the past is put together a cast of eccentric but strictly life-size characters and simply follow them around, record the changing attitudes and insights through which circumstances propel them. In his earlier (and most successful) films, he stuck with simpler plots, only a few real "incidents," with most of the film spent on tracking the fallout from those events.
In Henry Fool he makes the same mistake he did in Amateur, overloading the film with secondary characters and sub-plots that give the illusion of action but in the long run only distract from the philosophical meditations that are at the heart of all his work. Possibly in an attempt to make his films accessible to a wider audience presumably concerned with conventional narrative, he builds a web of story that is too complex and unsatisfying to fit comfortably within his spare style.
The plot revolves around Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), a nerdy, thirtyish garbageman who lives at home in Queens with his heavily medicated mother and his slutty sister. His life is an endless round of humiliation and boredom until a boarder arrives to rent the family's basement apartment.
Henry Fool ("Centuries ago there was an 'e' at the end") (Thomas Jay Ryan) is an enigmatic drifter who spouts aphorisms and claims to be a writer. Fool is writing his "Confessions," a la St Augustine (or is it De Quincey? or Ted Bundy?). He refuses to show his work to anyone, but from the first encourages the laconic Simon to take a composition book and write down his thoughts. Simon does so.
Under the influence of the blustering Fool he writes a massive epic poem that turns out to be in iambic pentameter. Simon struggles to get his work published, and finally, thanks to media controversy generated by partial publication in a high school newspaper he attains notoriety that generates enough publicity to get him noticed. He becomes famous and successful, while Fool's book turns out to be hopeless trash that no one will touch.
Time passes and Simon becomes a very successful author, while Henry gets Simon's sister Fay (Parker Posey) pregnant, marries her and takes Simon's place among the garbage trucks. At the end of the film, Henry kills an obnoxious and confusing secondary character in self-defense, and Simon, who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature(!) and is on his way to Sweden, trades places with Henry. Henry is about to escape. he can choose to go or to stay. (Curtain) - sort of. This is in fact, only part of the plot.
There is much more - far too much - with sub-plots that involve paedophilia, suicide, the media, spousal and child abuse, political opportunism, substance abuse, a cameo appearance by Camille Paglia, immigrants and other topics. There are a number of amusing satirical bits built around these plots and characters, and some of them suggest deeper themes that Hartley might have pursued - but didn't. The cumulative result is a confusing muddle of a plot where we lose connection with the characters in our efforts to follow events.
In earlier films, Hartley was content to follow one or two characters and let the rest wander in and out, letting the loose ends accumulate as they might. This relatively realistic approach - don't people appear and disappear like that in our real lives? - stood him in good stead, allowing him to craft quirky, imaginative little character portraits that also communicated by implication something about the world of which they were part.
In his later films, including this one, Hartley seems to have lost the easy playfulness that was one of his best features. His minimalist style is best suited to small stories. It is the very uneventfulness of his early films that makes them striking. In a vacuum of action, ideas, personalities and good dialogue resonate.
His other great strength is dialogue. He certainly ought to have won a screenwriting prize sooner, or perhaps later, but not now. Although the lines in Henry Fool are sometimes inspired, the plot distracts from them and makes the best of the writing seem like a glib trick. The characters often seem to be reciting rather than conversing - an effect that works very well in The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, and even Amateur, to reflect the degree to which we do rehearse our communications in our heads. Here it seems more labored and artificial, the screenwriter's anguish rather than the characters'.
Hartley always gets slightly out-of-focus, unexpected performances from his actors. They seem a little confused by what is going on around them, a little surprised to hear the words that are coming out of their mouths. This quality gives them a spontaneity that is often engaging and disarming. The three principals here - Ryan, Urbaniak and Posey - do a good job of never falling into cliche, keeping their characters off-balance and edgy.
Urbaniak is appropriately stiff and gawky as the taciturn garbageman, using body language to convey an excruciating discomfort. But he seems lost as the successful, self-assured Simon, and gets no help from the script that transforms him from one to the other by movie-magic alone.
Ryan is effective as the boorish, blustering malcontent Henry, and he also manages to evoke some sympathy as the failed-writer-turned-garbageman and struggling-parent-and-husband. He labors manfully to carry some ponderous dialogue off with sheer force of character, and mostly succeeds. He has a little more to work with than Urbaniak, but ultimately the writing lets him down as well.
Posey makes a good deal out of the under-written role of Simon's sister and Henry's wife. She lets a bit too much of her intelligence show through, however, and it seems out of place in the family and the film. She is not a caricature, although she has some stereotypical lines and broad comedic turns. But she never quite becomes a three-dimensional character either, and the scenes in which she is called upon to express real emotions seem out of place.
This is the real weakness of the film: indecision. Hartley can't seem to decide whether he is making a minimalist character play, like his earliest films, or trying to create a narrative film. He keeps switching back and forth between the two modes in an unsatisfying and unsuccessful attempt to ride both horses at once. It is a modern morality tale, a tragi-comic meditation on the place of the artist in modern society, a character study, a piece of social satire, all messily rolled into one.
The production values are as simple as all the previous Hartley films. Simple lighting set-ups; under-dressed sets; drab, unremarkable costumes; camera-work that emphasizes exposing the substance of the action over creating a style; all these elements make a relatively severe and flat background that works well when the foreground is compelling. The unevenness of Henry Fool, however, also undermines the effectiveness of this technique.
But Henry Fool, for all its failings, is still a pretty good film. Its best parts are quite compelling, and even its failures are often daring ones. Hartley set a high standard for himself with the highly original work of his first few films. That his later films have only occasionally attained similar peaks is as much a tribute to his early successes as a reproach to his later work.
His story-telling style is still evocative and sensitive. His dialogue has moments of manic wit, and moments of impressive minimalist melancholy. He gets quirky, engaging performances from his actors, and builds in small comic throw-aways that keep the mood enjoyably textured and unpredictable.
If he would only concentrate more on his strengths - dialogue, character and his directing of actors - and be less distracted by his weakness - coherent plotting - he might be able to build on the playful, offhand charm of his first few pictures. This is not Hartley's best film, but even the least satisfying of his films is more interesting and thought-provoking than the best of the mindless "summer block-busters."
That's my take on it. What's yours?