MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry Fool), James Urbaniak (Simon Grim), Parker Posey (Fay), Maria Porter (Mary), James Saito (Mr. Deng), Kevin Corrigan (Warren), Liam Aiken (Ned), Miho Nikaido (Gnoc Deng), Gene Ruffini (Officer Buñuel), Nicholas Hope (Father Hawkes)
Have you ever met someone who can talk for hours and never actually say anything? A stream of words flows from the mouth, all of which sounds grandiose, weighty, and far reaching in deep, metaphorical importance, and yet semantically the entire tirade is meaningless?
This is essentially a summation of the titular character of "Henry Fool," the arrogantly intellectual antihero at the center of Hal Hartley's new film. It's sometimes hard to tell whether Henry is supposed to be a tortured genius or a pompous fool like his name suggests. He seems to know a great deal about literature and the arts, about philosophy and esoteric themes of life and death. And, yet, as the movie progresses and we find out more and more about him, we begin to realize that perhaps he is not all he seems to be. As played with gusto and pedantic flair by stage-trained actor Thomas Jay Ryan in his first film performance, Henry is a great paradoxical character, one who both enthralls and infuriates.
That description also fits Hartley's film as a whole, which can be extremely enjoyable to those who get caught up in the strange lives of its bizarre characters, and yet it somehow leaves you feeling a bit empty when it's all over. Much like Henry's absurdly egotistic pontificating, the film gives the feeling that it's swelled up to look much bigger than it actually is; with only the slightest pin prick, all the air might come gushing out in one hot rush.
Hartley's screenplay switches back and forth in its emphasis on Henry and a meek garabageman named Simon (James Urbaniak), who is irrevocably changed when Henry walks out of the blue one day and enters his life by moving into the basement apartment beneath the house occupied by him, his sick, pill-popping mother, Mary (Maria Porter), and his slutty, chain-smoking sister, Fay (Parker Posey). Simon, a bespectacled geek with permanent bed-head, has been trodden on by others all his life and has assumed a slumping posture and near mute approach to life. He is, in a word, pathetic.
When Henry arrives, full of verbose intensity and courting a mysterious past, he encourages Simon to get out his aggression through writing. Henry himself has composed a vast opus of his own, which he calls his "Confession," eight notebooks long and shrouded in a mist of profundity because he will allow no one to read them until he feels they are complete. Henry, never one for subtlety, is sure that his masterpiece will upend the literary world and change the way we think about life.
The irony of the story is that Simon is the one who ends up setting the American culture ablaze. Taking Henry's advice, he begins writing out his frustrations, and although his spelling is "Neanderthal," as Henry puts it, his words flow in natural iambic pentameter and he ends up penning a poetic masterpiece about the decline of modern society. Hailed as brilliant by some and disparaged as pornographic and scatological by others (isn't that the way it always goes?), Simon's book-length poem refuses to go away, even when a haughty publisher refuses it. Once it gets onto the Internet, it causes a sensation, and the media outlets are soon bursting with news about this new poetic voice.
Of course, we are never allowed to hear any of Simon's poetry because, after all, with the enormous ruckus it causes, what words would suffice? It's easiest to think of it in an abstract form, although I continually had the feeling that it resembled something Allen Ginsberg might have written, a scandalous and raging poem along the lines of "Howl."
As a whole, "Henry Fool" never quite works as you hope it will, although it has to be given credit for sheer audacity and willingness to take on some important cultural issues in a unique manner. Many will find it dull and mistake Henry's pomposity as being reflective of Hartley as the writer/director. The film is certainly too long--the last half hour or so, when Simon virtually disappears from the narrative and the focus turns on how wretched Henry's life has turned out, drags terribly.
In terms of tone, the film is up and down, sometimes feeling like a black comedy, and sometimes playing more like an insidious drama. There are a couple of rather inexplicable gross-out scenes that stick out from the rest of the material. For instance, near the beginning of the film we see Simon take a big swig out of a carton of milk so old it looks more like cottage cheese, and a few scenes later he vomits all over a girl's exposed back side. And there's no way you will forget a prolonged scatological sequence that actually manages to aurally out-gross Jeff Daniels' infamous turbo-lax scene in the Farrelly Brothers' "Dumb and Dumber" (1994).
Thematically, Hartley wants nothing less than to root out the underlying meaning of art itself. What is it that gives Simon--the quiet garbageman who has to verbally assert that he isn't retarded lest someone make the assumption--the ability to pen something so important while Henry--the more logical choice for a brilliant artist in exile--is reduced to taking Simon's job at the dump? Another interesting aspect of the film is how it treats public reaction to controversial material. As such wide-ranging artists as Walt Whitman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, J.D. Salinger, and Robert Mapplethorpe well know, what is one person's art is another person's pornography, and more than anything else, Hartley seems to understand this and convey it in meaningful terms.
Interwoven throughout are smaller themes about friendship, loyalty, and culture in general. Hartley makes great use of everyday objects and locations to bring a sense of the real world into his often allegorical film--the furnace in Henry's apartment casts a menacing red glare on certain sequences; a local convenience store is a sort of central location where all the various characters mix; the dump where Simon works is a kind of claustrophobic, noisy pit where he is physically and metaphorically trapped.
At its best, much of "Henry Fool" can be seen as a sharp critique of American popular culture, especially a sequence that takes place in a publisher's office with a couple of well-dressed young executives ranting about how people will someday be downloading novels from the Internet and books will no longer be needed. The fact that this same publisher, who at one time is described as having great integrity, offers Simon hundreds of thousands of dollars to publish his poem only after it has become a media sensation, is just icing on the cake.
©1999 James Kendrick