The Reeler


May 18, 2007

Fay Grim

Earnestness and parody at cross-purposes Hartley's Henry Fool follow-up

Fay Grim, Hal Hartley’s wired, delightfully ambitious sequel to 1998’s Henry Fool, is packed with so much pulp and flotsam that the film encapsulating the formal fury is forced to compete with its own abstractions, like an immune system that begins to attack itself. It’s a strange viewing experience, as you get the feeling early on that this sum vs. parts fight will be one to the death, and yet no clear winner will emerge. Hartley has chosen the hallmark of a great remake -- reinvention -- in approaching the concept of the sequel, for better and for worse.

Assembling the original cast, with the notable additions of Jeff Goldblum and Hartley regular Elina Löwensohn, Fay Grim picks up seven years and one parallel universe from where Henry Fool left off, with would-be writer Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) on the run from a murder charge, instant poet Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) serving time for his brother-in-law’s misdeed and Fay Grim (Parker Posey) left to raise her son Ned (Liam Aiken) alone in Queens. Fay’s biggest concern is that Ned, just expelled from school for sexual antics on school property, will turn out like his father, so when CIA agents Fulbright (Goldblum) and Fogg (Leo Fitzpatrick) show up asking Fay to retrieve some of Henry’s notebooks (who is presumed dead) from Paris, she agrees on the condition that they release Simon so he can help look after her son. Both Simon and his publisher Angus (Chuck Montgomery) suspect that Henry’s “Confessions” (six notebooks of nihilistic scrawl) are more than the sum of their parts as well, though they can’t say exactly why. What Fay learns in Paris is that there is an entire flotilla of spies looking for the notebooks, which are in fact encrypted texts of highly sensitive information, written during Henry’s secret stint as an international man of mystery.

The use of canted angles is so pervasive that Hartley almost manages to normalize them, the blocking is self-consciously blocky and the dialogue a stilted take on hot potato patter. Posey is completely at home playing the plainly neurotic woman in a highly constructed environment; she is as ever a fascinating and adept comedienne, at times channeling the stiff, whirl-a-gig physicality of Cary Grant, which combined with her patrician, Hepburn bone structure and slack-jawed purpose, makes for a kind of one-woman screwball show. In scenes shot on location in Paris and Istanbul, Fay juggles the attentions of Israeli, French, Turkish, American, etc. (I lost count) secret service agents in a Matrix-esque overcoat that allows for frequent flashes of her garter; she is, after all, also searching for Henry, whom she still loves and who, she learns, still lives.

Allusions to the American predicament on the international scene are prevalent and yet just as off-handed as the rest of the film’s frenzy of plotted intrigue. Fay begins playing the game when she realizes she is being played for a fool by Fulbright; it’s certainly fun to watch, but right around the time that Henry finally makes his belated, slightly anti-climactic appearance, Fay Grim and Fay Grim seem to run out of tricks. Hiding from the authorities with a bin Laden stand-in (“I’m not a world famous terrorist,” he demurs, when Henry calls him out during an argument. “And who’s fault is that?” is Henry’s hilarious, combative reply), Henry, who “gravitates to the lowest common denominator on principle” is unchanged in his infernality, but can’t help but be moved when he learns his wife has tracked him down.

Publishing and espionage are subtly aligned as elite parlor games, trafficking in tall tales, conjecture and survival by totally unnatural selection. No one seems to know why anything happens or doesn’t happen, and Fay proves that she can mix it up with the best of them in the land of confusion. It’s not even sophisticated enough to be sleight of hand, Hartley seems to be saying, and while that may be true, Fay Grim ultimately pulls a straight face that seems to be at cross-purposes with its parodic intent. While it’s understood that all such tonal bets are off in a Hartley film, the director seems unsure of his own rules as the film stalls toward the end, and even Posey’s captivating melancholy -- in lovely bloom at the sight of her long, lost husband -- fails to bring it home.

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