1998, R, 137 min. Directed by Hal Hartley. Starring Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey, Maria Porter, Kevin Corrigan.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 24, 1998
“Get up off your knees,” barks Henry Fool (Ryan) to Simon Grim (Urbaniak) as he swaggers into Simon's basement at the beginning of the film and takes up residence. It is a directive that comes to characterize their relationship. Henry plays the mysterious, commanding, bombastic life teacher to Simon's reticent, bullied, and unassuming garbage man. The film is about the ironic influence the two men have on each other. It is a tale composed on an epic canvas, which is quite a departure for filmmaker Hal Hartley, whose distinctive vision has practically made all his films (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Simple Men, Amateur, Flirt) into their own unique genre. Until now, he has been a master of the hyper-real, depicting characters whose sense of isolation is profound and fairly impenetrable. With Henry Fool, however, Hartley has made his most dynamic and accomplished film to date. In no small measure this is because his new film is about the relationships between people, rather than the gulfs that surround them. Henry is a pontificating intellectual who believes that his notebooks containing his Confessions will revolutionize the writing establishment upon publication. Only thing is, they're never finished and he won't let anyone read them -- and there's also the ugly matter of some vile deeds in his past. But he generously gives the taciturn Simon a blank notebook to record his unspoken thoughts and what comes out is a cramped, scribbled stream of iambic pentameter. The words are so beautiful that they stimulate the mute cashier at the corner store to suddenly sing, turn his once-tormentors into his new acolytes, and causes his sister's period to begin a week and a half early as she types his long poem into the Internet. From there, it's instant fame for Simon as the student surpasses his questionable teacher, although their relationship continues through several more unexpected bends in the moral river. Though Hartley's ironic stance toward the world is still firmly in place, Henry Fool has a more darkly comic tone as questions of art, commerce, and talent are deftly explored. Parker Posey has one of her choicest roles as Simon's loud, promiscuous sister, and Camille Paglia even pops up at one point to provide commentary. Hartley's wry distance makes it hard to say for certain what it ultimately all adds up to, but links together smoothly enough as it unfolds. It's perhaps a little overlong with too much effort devoted at times to secondary characters and subplots. And be prepared for a couple of scenes of a grossly scatological nature that surpass anything found in the current spate of bathroom-humor comedies. Henry Fool is likely to make true believers out of Hartley's existent fans; to the newcomers there may be no better portal of entry.