Magnolia Pictures // 2007 // 118 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // May 22nd, 2007
Featuring the continuing adventures of Henry Fool.
The summer movie season is always rife with sequels, but this summer seems even more bloated than usual. Only a few short weeks in, we've already seen Spider-Man 3, 28 Weeks Later, and Shrek the Third; still to come is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Ocean's 13, Live Free or Die Hard, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Evan Almighty, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Bourne Ultimatum, Rush Hour 3, Hostel Part II, Daddy Day Camp...am I missing any? Probably. Regardless, it remains clear that in Hollywood the summer season means sequels.
So why shouldn't the world of indie film get in on the action?
It's been ten years since Hal Hartley's Henry Fool, and Fay Grim picks up precisely in that spot. A reformed Fay (Parker Posey, Superman Returns) is now a single mother, raising her son Ned (Liam Aiken, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events) to the best of her abilities and trying to keep him out of trouble. Her husband, the mysterious Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), has disappeared and been missing for years. Her brother, former garbage man-turned-literary genius Simon (James Urbaniak, American Splendor), is still in jail.
When literary agent Angus James (Chuck Montgomery, Frogs for Snakes) begins to show an interest in publishing Henry Fools journals -- his "confessions," as he called them -- it brings a host of faces out of the woodwork. Chief among them is Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum, The Great White Hype), who claims that Henry's confessions are not only true, but that contained within them are deeply encoded messages containing international secrets. Suddenly, the journals are the most coveted property on the spy scene, and Fay Grim is stuck in the middle of all of it.
Fay Grim is a movie stuck uncomfortably between two genres: the espionage thriller and the Hal Hartley film. Yes, I would consider Hal Hartley films a genre unto themselves; they've carved out their own little niche in the cinema universe, and cannot be mistaken for the work of any other director. As both a writer and a director, Hartley is an acquired taste -- his films tend to polarize viewers into strong "love it" or "hate it" camps. Personally, I've always liked his films (even 2001's No Such Thing, a film that received less than its share of positive notices) and found him to be somewhat misunderstood. Now, with Fay Grim, Hartley doesn't just dare to be misunderstood -- he insists upon it. The plotting of the movie is so deliberately labyrinth, so full of twists and switches and double crosses, that it ultimately becomes maddeningly impossible to care about anyone. Is that really the fate that the characters from Henry Fool deserve?
This question goes to the heart of my feelings about Fay Grim. I cannot understand why Hartley felt that the follow-up to a small, dialogue-driven character piece should be this epic of espionage and international intrigue. Aside from the presence of the characters, what does the one have to do with the other? I'll admit that the notion of having Henry Fool's tall tales and conspiracy theories turn out to be all true is somewhat inspired; what I can't reconcile is Hartley's execution of this conceit. On the one hand, the movie wants to play like a parody of a spy thriller -- everything is grossly exaggerated to the point of comedy, but I'm not sure Hartley intends it to be funny. Every shot -- and I do mean every shot -- is heavily tilted and static, with characters simply moving in an out of frame. It's a decent gag at first, but quickly wears out its welcome as it continues to call attention to itself. Directors like Michael Bay are almost always accused of emphasizing style over substance, but I'll venture to say that this is the first time that the same thing could be said about Hartley.
The problem with Fay Grim is that it seems designed to please no one. Those looking for the stylized dialogue and eccentric characterization of a typical Hal Hartley film will find themselves buried under mountains of exposition -- the movie is so over plotted that characters can do nothing but explain what is (or might be) going on to one another. Fans of the spy genre will find themselves frustrated with Hartley's almost total lack of interest in actually paying off those elements that give the genre its appeal. For as plot-heavy as the movie is, nothing actually happens; characters talk about things that have happened and might happen, but we see none of it. There is little action, only conversation about action. In the rare instance that an action sequence does occur, Hartley either cuts away from it or chops the shots up into still frames. He seems determined to deny the viewer satisfaction of any kind.
Fay Grim is another in Magnolia Pictures and HD Net's efforts to release films in multiple formats at the same time (theatrical, DVD, and satellite TV), giving viewers the choice of how they want to see a movie (Steven Soderbergh's great Bubble was the first to try this). A movie like Fay Grim doesn't really suffer in the translation to the small screen, making DVD a perfectly acceptable way to see it. Magnolia has done a passable job with the disc, too; the 1.78 widescreen image looks crisp, if a little washed out (the movie was shot in HD, and the lack of vibrant color is one of the side effects). The 5.1 audio track is surprisingly uninvolving, though, offering little dimensionality and hardly making use of any but the center channel (Hartley's fine musical score -- one of the movie's highlights -- and the occasional explosion being the exceptions).
Only a handful of extra features have been included in the supplemental section of the disc, but they do provide a reasonable account of how the movie came to be and provide perspective from a number of participants. First up is a short making-of featurette, where Hartley discusses the origins of Fay Grim and why he wanted to revisit the world of Henry Fool. Like so many films as frustrating as this one, hearing Hartley talk about the movie makes it sound better than it actually is -- the movie he describes is the one I want to see. A 30 minute episode of HD Net's Higher Definition, devoted entirely to Fay Grim, covers some of the same territory as the making-of, but has the added value of allowing the viewer to hear from most of the movie's major performers. Ninety seconds of deleted scenes hardly make an impact, but the theatrical trailer included is excellent -- it promises more than the movie has to offer.
Despite my frustrations with Fay Grim, there are still things that I liked about it. Parker Posey makes a refreshing heroine, and Jeff Goldblum manages to be really funny in just about every scene he's in. I could even appreciate the director taking a chance and trying to do something different -- Hitchcock by way of Hartley -- but I wish he could have found more to say. These characters deserve better.
I hate to say it, but Hal Hartley and Fay Grim are found Guilty. Here's hoping Hartley can dispense with the gimmicks and get back to doing what he does best.
Review content copyright © 2007 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Making-of Featurette
* Higher Definition: Fay Grim Episode
* Deleted Scenes
* Theatrical Trailer
* Bonus Trailers
* Official Site