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Our review of Henry Poole Is Here (Blu-Ray), published January 20th, 2009, is also available.
Changing his attitude will take a miracle.
It would be easy to dismiss Henry Poole is Here based on its premise:
A dying man moves into a suburban house near where he grew up to drink away his existence but a stubborn stigmata on his stucco forces him to become the town savior.
But don't. This is a well-acted, cinematically beautiful film with an awesome soundtrack that, despite some unbelievable scenes, is a truly feel-good movie—in a depressing sort of way.
Facts of the Case
See easily dismissed premise synopsis above.
Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) is angry and depressed. Why he's angry and depressed is one cornerstone of the film so the answer is not readily offered. But there's much teasing and foreshadowing. Maybe he had a horrible childhood and is now suicidal. Maybe he recently lost someone and is now suicidal. Maybe he has a terminal illness and has accepted his diagnosis with bitterness and resignation. Either way, Wilson plays a truly believable angry and depressed fellow. Unfortunately the publicly documented problems of his own brother might be a reason he captures this persona so well. Both physically and emotionally Wilson seems to sink into his character, and even though his veiled statements that he "won't be here [as in on earth] very long" are a bit overdone (much like an insecure attractive person always saying how ugly they are), there's little doubt that Henry Poole truly has problems.
Lucky for him he's surrounded by believers. People who, despite their own hard knocks, believe that God or the universe has a greater (happier) plan for them that will soon be revealed. These believers take the form of the neighborhood gossip, Esperanza (Adriana Barraza, best known for her Academy Award nomination for Babel), Esperanza's priest (George Lopez), Poole's pretty, divorced neighboor Dawn (Radha Mitchell), and Dawn's silent daughter Millie (Morgan Lilly).
Esperanza is the neighbor with too much time on her hands, the one who sees you when you don't want to be scene and then tells one to many people about it. She means well (really), but she can be a bit overbearing and intrusive. Barraza plays this character to a T, so much so that you can envision her baking cookies before every scene and watering her plants with one ear to the hum of the neighborhood (even though those aren't scenes in the movie). She's not the mean or deceptive town gossip (those ladies are all on Wisteria Lane) but the grandmotherly kind. Unfortunately, the recent death of her boyfriend (who lived in Poole's house) has left her waiting for a miracle, or a sign from her beloved, and when an odd stain reveals itself on Poole's stucco she feels it must be Jesus.
What ensues is a sometimes comedic, sometimes emotional, sometimes heart-wrenching parade of the town's needy into Poole's backyard. Of course this is a family-friendly film (PG) and the maimed are afflicted by relatively mild problems including Coke-bottle glasses and trauma-induced speechlessness so the "miracles" produced by the wall are a little overdone. But they make for interesting scenes.
At one point, the Jesus stain starts bleeding—just a small amount—and suddenly whenever someone comes to peer at the wall it becomes transparent, like Plexiglas, as if to demonstrate that there is no hidden spout behind the wall. It's an interesting cinematic shift for a movie that begins, seemingly, rooted firmly in reality. With the introduction of the wall stigmata the movie turns to another realm and suddenly what has been said or seen comes into question. Is Henry really dying? Is the stain on the wall really Jesus? Does anyone really believe?
This shift not only affects the plot but also the scenery. At the beginning the shots are saturated California enchantment of blue skies and freshly painted houses. There's also the harsh reality of a depressed man drinking himself into a stupor, accentuated by a new house with no personal affects or even furniture. And a beautiful little girl who's built herself a fortress in her rundown backyard where she can lament the loss of her father while tape-recording her neighbors. This is pared-down scene setting at it's finest, with an emphasis on the absolute best film, camera angles, and lighting to artistically display a scene. The scenery is accentuated by a haunting, yet cool, soundtrack featuring Ben Harper, Bruce Springsteen, Sam Endicot, and James Grundler. I hate to say it but this movie has a bit of what made The O.C. stand out it's first several years: music and space that's compelling.
Music Note: The DVD special features include two music videos: one for "All Roads Lead Home," by James Grundler and another for an unexplained MySpace.com theme song contest winner video (which doesn't seem to be included on the soundtrack). I'd imagine the Audio Commentary with Director Mark Pellington and Writer Albert Torres or The Making of Henry Poole is Here explains this MySpace.com contest, but as I'm always influenced in how I feel about a move by the director's/writer's perspective I opted against the insight.
But when Poole starts to consider the stain on his wall that he has so vehemently denied the pared-down facade crumbles. In the finale, some unbelievable and unrealistic CGI is introduced and the miraculous conclusion is too good to be true, and again calls into doubt the entire plot line. It's sort of like at the end everyone wakes up from this weird, sun-filled, religious dream to realize they're all relatively agnostic hippies. If this ending were at the beginning of the film few people would suffer through it. But as it is, there's 85 minutes of intrigue before the curtain crumbles closed.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
See last paragraph of The Evidence. Also, for the truly devout, those who do not want to see their religion's beliefs called into question, this movie is probably not for you.
Semi-Guilty. Poole's attitude actually gets worse and then he's rewarded in the best possible way. We don't get to see if his newfound good fortune actually makes him a better man.
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Studio: Anchor Bay
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