“Centuries ago, it had an E at the end,” offers the brazen, self-conscious title character from Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool, proffering an explanation where none was requested. As played by Thomas Jay Ryan, Henry Fool(e) is a brash, flatulent anachronism, a 19th century character puffed up on willful arrogance that may stem from a terrible insecurity. Ryan, a stage actor with no previous film credits, probably plays him too brash, but you get the feeling that’s the proscenium-style effect Hartley is looking for.
Henry shambles conspicuously into the life of one Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), a meek garbageman living in Queens with his mother Mary (Maria Porter) and sister Fay (Parker Posey). Moving into Simon’s basement apartment, Henry lives with the shadow of his vague, sordid past and scribbles out his epic Confession, which fills eight composition books bound together by a leather belt. Henry’s wanton presence turns the whole neighborhood upside-down, his lusty vigor seducing not just Mary and Fay, but Simon himself.
Simon, you see, is an unambitious, unlovable wretch of a man who’s urged by Henry to put pen to paper, turning his private frustrations and fascinations into poetry. In a single night, Simon fills a composition book. After an excerpt is posted at a local deli, and then published in a high school newspaper (with permission) by local students, Simon attains something of a local cult following. His efforts at getting published are met with derision (“Drop dead. Keep your day job — The Editors”) until his work is uploaded to the Internet. By the time Camille Paglia shows up on TV to sing his praises, Simon finds himself courted by one of the very editors who previously found his work inept and distasteful.
In the press notes, Hartley describes his story as an “epic,” citing Faust, Samuel Beckett, and even Kaspar Hauser as models for Simon. Certainly Simon is the relatively stable center around which most of this story orbits. Both Mary and Fay give themselves over completely to Henry, but Simon manages to keep his own modest sense of balance. Hartley delights in contrasting Simon’s sublimely talented geek against Henry’s charming rogue, who may not be as compelling a personage as he thinks he is.
Much of this is charming and engaging but, on the whole, Hartley doesn’t give his film a chance to breathe over the course of its 138 long minutes. His dialogue is witty, and the performances are strong. But it’s all straitjacketed by an insanely precise visual style that feels as inevitable as a suicide in a Shakespeare tragedy. His point-counterpoint storytelling gimmickry is as conspicuous as the painstakingly mannered shot compositions, stacking irony on top of irony like so many books on one’s chest. Eventually, you may feel as though you’ll suffocate.
Fortunately, there are inspired moments that puncture holes in the schematic. The most notable is a bathroom scene that’s everything this movie wants to be all at once: it’s appalling, hilarious, and even a little touching. Functionally, it begins the movie’s single unexpected turn into strange, domestic territory. And symbolically, it works as a deflating, scatological metaphor for all the guff that comes out of Henry Fool’s mouth.
I thought the movie lost its way in the final reel, veering suddenly into a weirdly solemn semblance of family life, complete with child neglect and hints of perversion. What began as Simon’s story becomes almost exclusively Henry’s, which wouldn’t be a problem if Henry himself felt like something more than an improbable refugee from a costume drama. But the proceedings perk up again in time for the film’s climax, which generates considerable pathos and feels almost just right. (Hartley can’t resist milking it just a little too much, going in for one last close-up as Henry takes a meaningful look over his shoulder.)
Even though Henry Fool left me feeling a little browbeaten, it would be churlish to deny that it made an impression. I’m hoping that, for his next movie, Hartley will relax and live a little, giving up some level of control in exchange for a spontaneity that I’ll bet would serve him well.