Art for art's sake?
Simon Grim is a garbage man. His sister Fay is an alcoholic slut. Their mother is an immobile, detached basket case. Into their waning world walks Henry Fool, self-proclaimed writer, genius, exile, and overall life philosopher. Henry is looking for a place to stay. The Grims have a shabby, yet available, basement apartment. After trying to have a meaningful conversation with Simon, Fool gives him a notepad and pencil and tells him to write down things when he can't find a way to express them. A few days later, Simon has filled page after page with poetry, a strange erotic/pornographic work that Henry thinks is brilliant. Soon, the reputation around the neighborhood is that Simon has crafted a masterpiece. When local teens see it, they place portions of it in their school paper. Days later, the board of education denounces it. Henry tells Simon that a publisher he knows will read the now multi-volume epic work. When he does, he declares it commercially unviable. Of course, all the controversy makes the manuscript a hot property and the once unconvinced book seller is now haunting Simon, contract in hand. Yet Simon feels compelled to help Henry. After all, he helped him "find his muse." Too bad Henry is all talk, borrowed money, and sleazy sex acts (many with members of Simon's family). Will Simon the newly crowned literary genius take a stand to get his friend and mentor Henry's elephantine opus (which he calls "a confession") published? Or will this stranger with a velvet tongue and a dark past always remain just Henry Fool?
Henry Fool is an ambiguous movie that inspires a similarly confusing response. Parts of the film are bittersweet and gorgeous, while others challenge believability and reek of overreaching amateurism. Like a novel unfolding before your eyes, it is a movie filled with complicated characters, hidden agendas, and poetic details. It is a mess. It is amazing. It is hard to champion and equally difficult to ignore. In his long career, director/writer Hal Hartley has been known for offbeat subjects handled in an obtuse, near pokerfaced fashion. Henry Fool is really nothing more than an urban fable, a metropolitan fairy tale with characters that personify their names. The title 'tard (Thomas Jay Ryan) is a self-important sap who spews stupid psychobabble (his erudite pronouncements makes maxims like "wherever you go, there you are" sound like John Stuart Mills), massages his multi-volume "confession," and exudes faux egotistical merit as an artist. He stumbles into the inert existence of complete loser Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), a man whose life is so empty and strangled that trying to live it violates the Geneva Convention. Henry is the artist as intellectual, providing various reasons (aside from his inherent lack of talent) as to why he is not more popular and respected. Simon is the gifted as hidden artifact, a person possessed of tremendous skill, only to have his surroundings slowly suffocate them. How these two interact with each other, their individual writing and Simon's extremely screwed up friends and family is the crux of Henry Fool. And you'd think it would be enough to create a crocked dark comedy.
Only problem is, for a self-professed humoresque there is very little that is funny about Henry Fool. Simon's fate is so sad, so saturated in squalid desperation, that to mock him is to ridicule the pathetic fringe of society. Henry may be a pompous ass, but at least he has a dogma and an ethos he believes in (even if it does occasionally allow for a drunken statutory rape). But his ideology is not warped enough to warrant laughter. Hartley does try to mine merriment out of such universally acknowledged kneeslappers as getting scalded with a full pot of boiling water and caffeine-fueled explosive diarrhea, but these are cheap shots inside what is a far more luxurious and loquacious film. So if the comic can't be found in the main players or their circumstances, perhaps it's in the ancillary actors, right? Actually, in many ways, they are much worse. Parkey Posey, who is making an awkward name for herself in independent films doing her several variations of the neurotic nympho routine here, plays Simon's sister Fay as a sexually chaotic drunk who uses intercourse as a salve (I know, you're in stitches already. Just bear this out). Simon and Fay's mother Mary is a clinically depressed couch potato who takes the notion of being a complete emotional vegetable to disturbing heights. Other members of this merry company include a violent wife beater, his black and blue spouse, their neglected daughter, and a self-important double-talking publisher. Not necessarily entities primed for pants peeing pleasantry.
It's actually better to think of Henry Fool as a dispirit daydream, the Hans Christian Anderson version (after all, that Danish dude was pretty dark) of the standard story of unexpected success—unknown artist finds favor in a controversial work, while the wiseacre that forced him into the spotlight grows jealous that his own talent is being ignored. When viewed in a less jocular light, Henry Fool does start to come alive. Sure, the scene of Simon vomiting on a woman's bare ass (don't ask) or a filthy child hanging out in the city dump pushes the limits of likeability, yet there is still something ethereal, something sublime about the story Hartley wants to tell. Again, the long form written narrative comes to mind, the kind of detail oriented fiction that throws in everything, including the surreal kitchen sink, and still keeps its theme above plodder. In cinema, though, such multi-faceted feasts become too rich and meaty. The impact of seeing something stays with you longer than merely skimming it as part of a reading ritual. So Henry Fool's tangents can be taxing, even plot stopping.
Yet this is also the rare movie that is almost completely saved by its ending. In the final five minutes, when all the incessant talking and posturing calms down, when the character foundations that have been laid over the last two hours are perfectly mined and the achingly gorgeous score takes over the chores of storyteller, Henry Fool is fantastic. It matches the magical realism of Forrest Gump (sans the syrupy sentimentalism) with the open-ended qualities of the best foreign film language (we really don't know what is happening on that runway) to bring a simultaneous sense of closure and yet provide the delightful fodder for future installments of this strange story. Indeed, it's like reading the final line of a Thomas Pynchon puzzler or getting lost in the ominous final chord strike of The Beatles' "A Day in the Life." It almost makes Henry Fool into a great film. Too bad the anchor from all the other anarchy ruins its overall intent.
The DVD presentation of Henry Fool really fails to do this film any great service. Sure, the stunning visual presentation preserves Hartley's 1.78:1 aspect ration brilliantly and the complex compositions and imaginative framing are favored in the transfer's treatment. The image is radiant and raw at the same time, suggesting the enigmatic while staying grounded in urban decay. The sonic stuff, however, is just ordinary. Aurally, Henry Fool is all talk, with some minor if moving musical cues to decorate the negative space. So while the Dolby Digital Stereo is crystal clear, it is also basic and occasionally banal. Where the real failing comes is in the extras department. A movie with such an unclear vision as Henry Fool needs a commentary to work as a suggestive supplement. We need to know what was going on in the director's head when certain strangeness crawls across the screen. Sadly, Hartley is silent here, unable to offer his thoughts as Columbia TriStar did not warrant a decent bonus package. All we get are random trailers and that's it, which is really a shame.
Henry Fool is a film with faults, but it is also a film with heart and with chutzpah. Unfortunately, we may never know what it really means. Just like Simon's poem or Henry's "confession," the meaning and the words themselves will always be an unseen by the audience mystery.
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