Sunday, June 24, 2007

FAY GRIM (Review)

I’ve only ever really watched one Hal Hartley film before now: No Such Thing, with Sarah Polley and Helen Mirren, and I largely came into that movie because of those two brilliant actresses. I loved the film though, and thought Hartley’s take on the monster movie was insightful and one of those rare gems that any diehard film fan should be thankful even got made.
So, even though I’d never gotten to see Henry Fool, when Fay Grim came around the corner, and I understood that it was a sequel to Hartley’s well-regarded film, I thought to myself, Well, I’m still gonna try and see this one. After all, it had Parker Posey in it. (Like Polley and Mirren, an actress who’s tops in my books.)
Now, I really wanna see Henry Fool

Fay Grim takes place years after Henry’s flight from justice (apparently, he killed a man in the first film), and Fay (Posey) is a frazzled single mother in Queens struggling to keep her son Ned (Liam Aiken, from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) out of trouble. Meanwhile, her brother Simon (James Urbaniak, who played Robert Crumb in American Splendor and can be seen in the upcoming The Nanny Diaries and the troubled Across The Universe), noted “garbage man-poet” of Queens, is serving a prison term for aiding and abetting Fool in his escape.
Enter CIA man Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) and his partner Agent Fogg (Leo Fitzpatrick, who played Telly in Larry Clark’s Kids), who claim that Henry may have been involved in terrorism and who need Fay to help them retrieve a number of Henry’s journals—purportedly containing sensitive information about the U.S. government—and Fay’s life is overturned and upset, all for a man she claims she never wants to see again.

On the surface, Fay Grim is Hartley’s spin on the Hollywood spy thriller, as a single mother nearly at her wit’s end, is suddenly thrust into the labyrinthine world of spies and double agents, and if it were merely that, it would already have been a triumph.
But Hartley does a lot more in this film, taking us on a journey with Fay, as she travels the world while she finally comes to terms with her real feelings about Henry, a man whose secrets were apparently laid down before everyone to see, secrets that everyone (including his own wife) thought were a whole load of bullsh!t.
In all probability, if I had seen Henry Fool, the conceit of Fay Grim would have astounding resonance, as this is essentially a plot flip, turning everything we thought we knew about Henry from the first film, on its head; all the stories we thought were tall tales, were actually the truth.
As it is though, to a newbie, Fay Grim is still an exceedingly effective film, that is moving and heartfelt (as any good drama is), involving and intriguing (as any good spy thriller is), and funny and witty (as any good comedy is).
Like No Such Thing, it maps an intricate structure over the template of a familiar film genre, and through its characters, imparts subtle truths about relationships, yearning, and human nature.

Posey, being one of the few actresses I know who is able to find honest and genuine emotion in humor, is brilliant in Fay Grim. She’s always been good at portraying a real person amidst the laughter and the witty banter, and she’s in fine form here. And the chemistry she displays with Goldblum (who’s got some pretty tricky lines in this one) is the sort of palpable character interplay that needs to be bottled, mass-produced, and sold off to lesser films with less talented thespians.
Actually, across the board, Hartley’s ensemble acquits itself admirably, and the film, shot in HD with lots of Dutch angles, is all the stronger because of these performances.
Even when the more colorful characters (Elina Lowensohn’s stewardess/topless dancer Bebe and Anatole Taubman’s terrorist Jallal) come into the tale, there is still the underlying sense that we are seeing people here, real characters with real emotions and real lives and real relationships with each other.
Again, as with No Such Thing, no matter how extraordinary things get, we never lose sight of the fact that these are identifiable, sympathetic characters, and Hartley makes this gift to absorb the audience into his world look effortless.

From the sampling of two I have seen of Hartley’s work, I get the impression when someone says “It’s a Hal Hartley film,” it’s kind of like saying “It’s a David Lynch film,” or “It’s a Wes Anderson film,” in that one immediately knows the general characteristics of the film, its shape and the manner in which it treats its characters and the world they move around in, the sort of film where one can see the director’s signature on the frame, can hear his singular voice in the rhythms and nuances of speech.
The sort of film that could never have been directed by anyone else. The sort of film that is the anti-thesis of the work of the new breed of Hollywood director, slick and splashy monstrosities that are ultimately interchangeable with each other, where one is hard-pressed to note just exactly who the director is, and what unique point of view and mindset he brought to the film.
Watching Fay Grim, I could safely say, “Yes, this is by the man who directed No Such Thing.” And when you can make distinctions like that, can spot the qualities and the idiosyncracies, can identify the voice, then you know you’re in the hands of a capable storyteller, and not some hack.
You may not like the story in the end, but at the very least, it’s a story you won’t hear anywhere else.

(Fay Grim OS courtesy of

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