When HENRY FOOL burst upon the screen and the scene in 1997, it was hailed by some as writer/director Hal Hartley’s masterpiece. Others, of course, castigated it. Such is the fate of films that dare to address deeply philosophical issues with an offbeat sense of humor and a pithy sensibility. Such may well be the fate of FAY GRIM, Hartley’s sequel, the which some of us have been hoping for since 1997.
The story picks up in real time, with garbage man turned notorious and Nobel-laureate poet Simon Grim (James Urbaniak brilliant again as the geek genius) serving time for helping his brother-in-law, the eponymous Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan with a burning ember in his eyes), elude a murder rap by forging a passport and sending him to Sweden and the Nobel award ceremony. Simon’s sister, and Henry’s wife, Fay (Parker Posey), has moved from life as a party girl to life as a single mother with desperate hair and a cell phone that brings nothing but bad news. Supporting herself with the royalties from Simon’s writings, and fretting about how her son is turning out, her life is about to take a turn for the bizarre. The government has taken a new interest in Henry’s disappearance. The market for Simon’s poems is drying up because of the dumbing down of the general public. The previously unpublishable autobiographical notebooks left behind by Henry have become a hot publishing commodity because of the tabloid notoriety attached to their author. Simon’s publisher has suddenly taken a less that strictly professional interest in Fay. And there’s that mysterious orgy box that arrived in the mail with no return address, and a secret beyond the carnal goings on.
The original characters are all back, more or less, and there are new characters, including spies of all stripes, and Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum with cool intellect) a CIA agent with obscure but intense motives and a name fraught in intentional associations, sacred and profane. Henry may or may not be dead. His son, Ned, (Liam Aiken wise beyond his 15 years), may or may not be either a budding genius or a budding sociopath, Fay may or may not be the key to an intrigue of international proportions. And Simon may or may not keep answering the phone as his sister, whose lifespan as an innocent abroad embroiled in machinations not of her making, and who may or may not have long to live, checks in with the latest twist in her plans. Hartley isn’t as concerned with satisfying conventional storytelling expectations, though he does a nice job of tidying up many loose ends, as he is with commenting on the zeitgeist of a post-9/11 world with a sly compassion and wickedly honest humor.
Hartley’s style is formal, Kabuki-like, with actors tightly choreographed, sometimes down to the specifics of how and when an eyeball should move. Yet, for all the restrictions, there is in the writing, and in the actor’s depth of complexity, that allows the soul of those actors, and of their characters, and of the story as a whole, to blaze forth in an odd, captivating juxtaposition. Posey, in particular, swallows whole the specific rhythms of the language and makes them achingly human and archly artificial at the same time, a feat worthy of Oscars, Palm d’Ors, and the astonished applause of audiences worldwide, even those who are reading subtitles can’t fail to feel her visceral impact. She also imbues Fay with something without which the film would fail – feral intelligence. As proxy for the great unawakened American public, obsessed with singing contests and survival competitions that smack more of commercialism than talent or courage, oblivious by chance or design to anything geopolitical beyond their particular garbage pick-up day, Fay takes what comes, does the best she can in the moment, and ultimately shows a mettle that book learning can’t create, not unlike the native skill brother Simon showed with his unconventional poetry.
FAY GRIM dances through so many levels that while one viewing is sublime, several are a giddy revelation, each one more so than the last. Milton, realpolitik, bed-time stories, and the relative nature of truth, not to mention Henry’s true identity and age, bubble with blithe import, coalescing into a work with heady theological implications that is brilliant, funny, iconoclastic, and so deeply true that it is almost too beautiful to bear.