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Fay Grim

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/18/07 15:20:30

"The power politics people (and countries) play."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2007 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Once, not long ago, indie filmmaker Hal Hartley ("Amateur," "Simple Men," "Trust," "The Unbelievable Truth") was lauded for his dialogue-driven dramas centered on hyper-smart, hyper-neurotic, art- and fame-obsessed characters entangled in unlikely romances. Harley's films were appreciated by critics interested in promoting indie filmmakers over their Hollywood counterparts (i.e., the auteur theory in action) and select audiences eager for enlightenment, intellectual and otherwise, from their arthouse experiences. As often happens, though, Hartley's fanbase shrank over the years. Trying to get back into the good graces of critics and indie audiences alike, Hartley decided it was time to make a belated sequel to "Henry Fool," his 1997 absurdist comedy-drama that garnered critical acclaim and and indie audiences to match. Unfortunately, the sequel, "Fay Grim," isn't likely to satisfy Hartley's core audience or attract new devotees.

Ten years after Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) fled the United States on a manslaughter charge, Fay Grim (Parker Posey), Henry's wife, lives quietly with their son, Ned (Liam Aiken). Now fourteen, Ned seems to have taken on some of his father's less desirable qualities, including Henry's distaste for authority. After two incidents in two days, Ned gets expelled. Fay's brother, Simon (James Urbaniak), a garbage man turned controversial, Nobel Prize-winning poet, languishes in prison for aiding and abetting Henry's flight from justice. Simon's publisher, Angus James (Chuck Montgomery), informs Fay that there's money to be made in Henry's long-lost journals, the "Confessions." Henry's journals may be short on literary quality, but given Henry's continued notoriety as a fugitive, they're likely to sell and sell well.

Almost simultaneously, a CIA agent, Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum), approaches Fay and informs her that Henry's peripatetic adventures across the globe, specifically South America and the Middle East, gave him access to top-secret information, information that Henry carefully concealed in his journals via a code. Fulbright also informs Fay that Henry's dead and asks Fay to travel to Paris and pick up two of Henry's journals currently being held by the French authorities. What might seem like a simple go-and-grab trip isn't as Fay encounters secret service agents from France, Iran, Israel, and Arab terrorists. Fay also encounters Bebe (Elina Löwensohn), a woman who claims to have been Henry's lover. Together, they travel to Istanbul where they hope to find answers to Henry's fate.

Where to begin? Well, there’s always indie stalwart and icon-in-the-making Parker Posey to talk about. As Fay Grim, Posey’s never less than watchable and Hartley makes sure that she’s impeccably dressed, even going as far as having her wearing a fashionable town-coat once she’s in Paris that makes her look like she good slip into a Matrix sequel. An experienced thespian working with indie filmmakers (she has more than sixty credits to her name), Posey knows her way around arch, often contrived dialogue and ground it in the real world. Hartley also gives another indie actress, the sadly underused Elina Löwensohn, a relatively small, if significant role. Bringing Jeff Goldblum, an idiosyncratic actor at his best when he’s delivering rapid-fire dialogue, was as good a decision as giving Posey a central role in the sequel. Likewise with James Urbaniak, as perfect an actor to deliver Hartley’s deadpan dialogue as you can find.

Unfortunately, "Fay Grim's" storyline doesn’t hold up to superficial, let alone close, scrutiny. While Hartley’s earlier films were intimate, character-driven, comedy-dramas, he goes for something broader and perhaps more substantial, borrowing elements from the espionage/thriller genre and adding political context to the mix. Henry’s “Confessions” are a classic McGuffin, a term filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock used to describe the object of desire that gets a story going but has little importance otherwise. Since we never actually see what the journals contain, we have to rely on characters who or may not be telling the truth. Even if they are, all we get is clichéd jabs at ruthless Western and Middle Eastern governments willing to torture and kill to protect national secrets (i.e., secret bases, involvement in various coups, etc.) and not much else. Sadly, "Fay Grim" isn’t the return to form that Harley’s fans hoped for, but instead a desperate plea for contemporary relevance by a filmmaker whose best films might be behind him.

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