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Awesome: 3.7%
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4 reviews, 3 user ratings

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Fay Grim
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by Peter Sobczynski

"International Espionage, The Hal Hartley Way"
4 stars

After Hal Hartley’s first film, the wry comedy “The Unbelievable Truth,” debuted in 1990 to critical hosannas and a healthy commercial run on the art house circuit, it was no doubt assumed by most observers that his subsequent career would play out in one of any number of familiar ways. He might use the heat that he had generated to move himself into a series of bland but well-paying studio jobs or he might come up with a second film so lousy that he would be dismissed as just another one-trick pony and disappear from the scene for good. In the best possible scenario, he might have figured out a way to go back and forth between small personal projects and larger studio efforts that would still allow him to maintain his unique voice in the same way that his contemporaries Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater have managed to do over the years. In lieu of picking any of those paths, Hartley instead decided to march to his own drummer and instead proceeded to write, produce and direct a series of deeply personal and highly idiosyncratic films–including “Trust” (1991), “Amateur” (1994) and “Henry Fool” (1998)–that were filled with quirky characters, oddball humor and a filmmaking style that took its cues from Godard instead of old TV shows and exploitation movies. Once the press realized that he was content doing this and had no driving interest in making the next big blockbuster, they moved on from him and such recent efforts as “No Such Thing” and “The Girl From Monday” have either been summarily dismissed as more of the same or simply ignored altogether.

The idea of Hartley making a sequel to his 1998 cult oddity “Henry Fool” is such a bizarre notion that it sounds like the kind of quiet joke that one might encounter only within the confines of a Hal Hartley film. And yet, here is “Fay Grim,” a film that picks up with the characters from that original story and plunges them into a series of new adventures. In most cases, such a move might strike observers as a case of creative desperation on Hartley’s part–having seen his standing in the indie-film world drop thanks to the critical and commercial indifference to such recent works as “No Such Thing” and “The Girl From Monday,” it looks on the surface as if he is trying to regain his standing by lazily revisiting the last film of his to make an impact with critics and audiences. Of course, if there is one thing that viewers have learned over the years from watching Hartley’s films, it is that appearances can often be deceiving and that is certainly the case with “Fay Grim.” Instead of a mere retread of former glories, the film is a strange, funny and always surprising work that expands on the original instead of simply repeating it while telling a story that is quirky and intriguing enough to play for people who have never heard of Hal Hartley or “Henry Fool” in the first place.

That said, perhaps a refresher course on the salient details of “Henry Fool” is in order. That film told the story of Simon Grimm (James Urbaniak), a sad-sack Long Island garbage collector whose life of quiet desperation was turned upside down by the arrival of Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a self-styled genius who breezes into Simon’s life bearing a series of notebooks containing his “confessions”–an extended rant that, he never fails to assure us, would rock the literary world forever if he ever allowed them to be published. Serving as the most unlikely of mentors, Henry advises Simon to take all of his frustrations with the world and put them down on paper and the result is an epic poem that, once posted on this newfangled thing called the internet, becomes a worldwide sensation that outrages many readers, galvanizes even more and earns Simon the Nobel Prize. As for Henry, his “confessions” turn out to be nothing more than the unpublishable rantings of a madman and he winds up spiraling into an abyss fueled by alcohol and an unhappy marriage to Simon’s sister, Fay (Parker Posey), whom he impregnated along the way. Inevitably, Simon and Henry have a falling out over the former’s success and the latter’s failure but when some dark secrets from Henry’s past begin to catch up with him, Simon winds up helping him flee the country before he can be arrested for his crimes.

“Fay Grim” picks up roughly nine years after the events of “Henry Fool” and as it starts, Fay is the harried single mother of Ned (Liam Aiken), a troublemaking teen who appears to be headed down the same incorrigible footsteps as his father, Simon is sitting in prison for his role in helping Henry flee the country and Henry is nowhere to be found. One day, Fay is visited by agents Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) and Fogg (Leo Fitzpatrick) and informed that Henry is presumed to be dead. However, two of the notebooks containing his “confessions” have turned up in Paris and they need her to travel there as his grieving widow and retrieve them for the U.S. government before they can fall into the wrong hands and bring down the governments of the U.S., France and Germany. At the same time, Simon’s publisher–who famously rejected the “confessions” when they were first offered to him–now wants the notebooks as well so that he can put them out on the market. (“Anything that is capable of being sold is worth publishing.”) After getting the government to agree to release Simon from prison so that he can serve as an acceptable male role model for her son, Fay agrees to their request and jets off to Paris for a series of adventures that include encounters with a couple of mysterious women (Saffron Burrows and Elina Lowensohn), numerous shoot-outs and too many double-crosses to catalogue here before landing in Istanbul discovering the truth about Henry or at least what is currently passing for the truth in regards to him.

I suppose that if you know nothing about Hartley and his work and just took the last paragraph at face value, “Fay Grim” might sound like a standard-issue espionage tale in which an ordinary person is inexplicably thrust into an extra ordinary situation–“The Hipster Who Knew Too Much,” as it were. However, much in the way that he subverted the horror and science-fiction genres with his peculiar takes on them in “No Such Thing” and “The Girl From Monday,” Hartley approaches the outwardly familiar material from unexpected angles (literally–nearly every scene appears to have been shot using Dutch angles) and comes up with a film that spoofs the conventions of the spy genre while using the familiar framework as a way of presenting the story that he really wants to tell–a look at the radical geopolitical changes that the world has undergone in the years since the release of “Henry Fool” and the events of 9/11. As Hartley spins out one increasingly bizarre conceit about Henry and his past after another, the details become so outlandish that it soon becomes clear that Hartley is having fun with the convoluted and ever-expanding backstories found in the James Bond and Jason Bourne films. At the same time, he also looks with sorrow and rage at the way that America’s constant meddling in foreign affairs in the past have led to disastrous consequences in the present and its lessened standing in the eyes of the world.

Having said that, I don’t want to give the impression that “Fay Grim” is as dour and unpleasant as the title might suggest. In fact, this is easily the breeziest and most sheerly entertaining work that Hartley has done in a long time. While I have pretty much admired all of Hartley’s films, I will admit that some of them have played like private jokes between him and his devoted circle of admirers–this can be fun if you are in that circle but somewhat less so if you aren’t. This time around, the film moves with a pop and energy that isn’t usually seen in his work that keeps things from bogging down into a morass of confusion. There are a lot of laughs on display here as well–little one such as Lowensohn’s indignant explanation as to who she really is (“I’m not a spy! I’m a stewardess–sometimes a topless dancer!”) and big ones such as the way the film gets around depicting large-scale action scenes on the puniest of budgets–and Hartley’s deadpan approach to the jokes works as an effective counterpoint to the increasingly convoluted narrative. The anchor for the entire film, however, is the central performance from longtime Hartley collaborator Parker Posey as Fay and it is indeed some of the best work she has done in a long time–she is absolutely hilarious in the early scenes as a woman whose only response to the series of emotional bombshells that are detonating in front of her is to constantly remind people that “I’m single” and touching later on as she begins to realize with amazement that despite everything, she still has some feeling towards Henry Fool.

I don’t want to say that “Fay Grim” is a return to form for Hal Hartley because that would serve to unfairly dismiss the often underrated films that he has made in the last few years. However, this is easily his most satisfying work since “Henry Fool”–his peak effort as a filmmaker in my opinion–that will entertain longtime fans and newcomers alike. (Regarding the latter, I would say that while you don’t have to see “Henry Fool” in order to understand “Fay Grim,” it certainly wouldn’t hurt.) This is a rare sequel that lives up to the promise of its predecessor while offering viewers more than just a simple retread of previously seen material. Trust me, if all filmmakers put as much thought into their sequels as Hartley has here, the next few months of moviegoing would be far more pleasant to contemplate.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14981&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/18/07 00:32:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2006 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2007 Portland Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2007 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2007 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Independent Film Festival of Boston For more in the 2007 Independent Film Festival of Boston series, click here.

User Comments

4/13/09 Baloney Tedious to watch. Dead in the pan with no sizzle. 2 stars
6/08/07 William Goss A deadpan espionage send-up that more than overstays its welcome. 2 stars
6/02/07 dmitry samarov The master of deadpan, stilted dialogue strikes again 5 stars
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  18-May-2007 (R)
  DVD: 22-May-2007



[trailer] Trailer

Directed by
  Hal Hartley

Written by
  Hal Hartley

  Parker Posey
  Thomas Jay Ryan
  James Urbaniak
  Jeff Goldblum
  Liam Aiken
  Saffron Burrows

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