Fay Grim

| May 20, 2007

SPOILER WARNING: This review contains some major plot points of 1997’s Henry Fool, to which Fay Grim is a sequel. If you haven’t seen Henry Fool, I highly suggest you go rent it and then come back to read this review. And for those of you so impatient, you can’t wait to know: Fay Grim is very good and well worth seeing. Now go rent Henry Fool.
We’re just moving into the summer months and all loyal moviegoers and Film Monthly readers know what that means. That’s right, it’s sequel season. The usual suspects are already here or gearing up the mega-publicity machine to insure huge opening weekend box office numbers. What does this leave for the smaller films out there? How can they compete with behemoths like Spider-Man 3 or Shrek 3 that between them take up seemingly a full half of the available theater screens? Well folks, writer-director Hal Hartley thinks he has the answer: give the indie crowd their own sequel to buzz about. In perhaps the summer season’s most surprising attempt at counter-programming, Hartley unleashes the chaotic, comedic world of Fay Grim.
In Henry Fool, the titular character (Thomas Jay Ryan, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is a pretentious drifter with delusions of grandeur about being a great, misunderstood writer. Henry blows into the lives of the Grim family, spouting philosophical nuggets that sound like they come straight out of a book of quotations (which they probably do). Despite the unoriginality of his thoughts and the very real possibility that he has no idea what he is actually saying, Henry has a surprising effect on Simon Grim (James Urbaniak, American Splendor). Simon is a quietly desperate garbage man whom most everyone in his Queens neighborhood assumes is retarded. Under Henry’s “tutelage” and harsh words of encouragement, Simon blossoms into a poet whose work is so strong and controversial, he becomes a huge success. Meanwhile, Fay (Parker Posey, Dazed and Confused), Simon’s sister, is bedded by Henry, resulting in pregnancy. While Fay lacks self-esteem and education, and is promiscuous to a fault, she also shows a fierce loyalty and strange maternal instinct toward Simon and eventually Henry. Forced into marriage, Henry begrudgingly settles down. In a late in the movie twist, Henry kills the neighborhood wife-beater in self-defense, and goes on the run from the cops, leaving Fay and their seven-year-old son, Ned (Liam Aiken, Road to Perdition), behind.
Much like Hartley’s previous efforts, Henry Fool was a film about flawed characters looking for what everyone else wants: love, respect, admiration and redemption. It featured his trademark mixture of deadpan acting, sincere dialogue, and humor that navigates anywhere from absurd to scatological. It was also his most expansive film, touching on social and political elements from censorship to art vs. commerce. With Fay Grim, he picks the story up seven years after Henry has made his escape, but does so in a most unexpected way.
Fay is now a harried single mother, so ashamed of the legacy that Henry has left her she has changed back to her maiden name. Her son, Ned (Liam Aiken encoring as a teenager), is now a 14-year-old showing every sign of turning out very much like his father. Simon is serving a prison sentence for helping Henry escape to Europe at the end of the first film. None of them have heard anything from Henry and have no clues to his whereabouts. That’s why it’s such a shock to Fay when C.I.A. Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum, The Fly) shows up to inform her that Henry was not actually who she thought he was. According to Fulbright, Henry was a double agent at the center of everything from a coup in Chile to the Contra–Sandinista conflict in Nicaragua. He also believes that Henry’s “confessions,” a series of notebooks, may actually contain vital U.S. government secrets written in code. Fay cuts a deal with Fulbright to retrieve two of the notebooks from the French government in exchange for the release of Simon. Faster than you can say Charade, Fay is up to her neck in secret agents, gun fights, terrorists, double-crosses, and a stewardess who may hold some secrets of her own. But is Fay only after the notebooks, or does she want to reunite with Henry?
Does the plot make sense? Not really. But with a film like this, it doesn’t matter. The plot is merely an excuse for Hartley to turn his comedic sights on the espionage thriller genre. Everything from The Third Man all the way up to TV’s 24 takes it on the chin as Hartley uses a screwball comedy approach to spoof a world of foreign agents and terrorists who are sad and lonely and don’t really seem to understand why their missions are so important.
Gone are Hartley’s theatrical setups where the camera is locked down for an entire scene. He has style to burn this time around, employing rapid-fire dialogue, pratfalls, freeze frames and enough canted angles to make Orson Welles jealous. It feels as though, despite this being a sequel to one of his previous films, he is trying to break away from the reputation he has picked up through the years of being simply a “talky” director. In that sense, he succeeds. Fay Grim is easily his most visually stimulating film to date.
The stylized acting that Hartley required of his cast could have spelled disaster, but they all rise to the occasion, finding subtlety in the broad comic strokes and garnering audience sympathy. Posey, in particular, delivers a great performance that is funny, touching, and sexy all at once. It’s really a reminder of how good she can be and why Hollywood came calling in the first place. She’s backed ably by the dryly-funny turns of Urbaniak and Aiken, while Goldblum does his usual creepy slime ball shtick, but it suits the character and he does it well.
The only point at which the film falters is in the abrupt, rather downbeat ending. It feels a little mean-spirited and doesn’t fit in with the playful tone of the rest of the film. Still, it’s not a severe enough misstep to take away from the enjoyment of everything up to that point. Who knows? This could just be Hartley’s way of setting up another chapter in the Grim family saga. Here’s to hoping that we don’t have to wait another ten years for Simon Grim.

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