often audiences see films that they might wish went on longer. Or they might leave the movie theater and wonder what happened next to the people who were on screen. Sometimes a filmmaker will oblige by making a sequel, sometimes the audience is left to use its imagination. Unfortunately, this is not one of them.
In 1997, Hal Hartley wrote and directed the critically-acclaimed HENRY FOOL, a comedy-drama about a garbage man from Queens who sets out to write a "Confession" he is certain will turn not just the literary world -- but all of the globe -- on end. The effort, however, is deemed unpublishable and Henry has to flee the country after committing an accidental murder. He poses as his neighbor, a well-known poet and leaves behind a wife (who happens to be said neighbor's sister). Now nearly a decade later, Hartley has revisited the characters (and luckily has been able to hire the same actors) in FAY GRIM.
This movie possesses Hartley's off-kilter humor, oddball characters, non sequiturs, and a complicated plot involving the CIA and its involvements with foreign governments, espionage and possibly terrorism. It's a far cry from the intimate work that formed Hartley's reputation (THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, TRUST). In recent years -- indeed since HENRY FOOL, the filmmaker has been tackling big issues with less than satisfying results. Unfortunately, such is the case with FAY GRIM as well.
The plot picks up seven years after the end of the original film. Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) has departed for parts unknown and Simon (James Urbaniak) has been in prison for assisting in his flight. Fay (Parker Posey) has struggled to raise her son Ned (Liam Aiken) but seems to be entirely and utterly clueless. Things begin to shift as the film opens though. Simon's publisher Angus (Chuck Montgomery) has asked Fay for a meeting -- he is now reconsidering the idea of publishing Henry's "Confession," even though he thinks it has no literary merit. By using Fay, Angus gets a copy of one of the notebooks to Simon in prison. Simon becomes convinced that the manuscript is actually written in code and may contain state secrets.
Fay's life gets more complicated when two CIA agents -- Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) and Fogg (Leo Fitzpatrick) show up. Fulbright informs Ms. Grim that her husband is dead and that as his widow she must go to France to retrieve two volumes of Henry's opus. Initially reluctant, Fay agrees on the condition that Simon be released from prison. Once in France, Fay begins to learn that she hasn't exactly been told the truth. There are several people after the notebooks including Juliet (Saffron Burrows) who may be an Israeli agent, an Arab posing as a bellboy (Nikolai Kinski), and a woman named Bebe (Elina Löwensohn) who claims to be in love with Henry.
Hartley juggles numerous balls and the plot mechanics become a bit tedious -- especially when Fay disappears for stretches and minor characters take center stage. The movie tries for a lighthearted feel but the subject matter is dark and the two don't exactly mesh. The comedy is not broad nor does it invoke belly laughs. It might bring a smile or cause a chuckle but that's all.
The cast does well given the limitations of the screenplay. Posey has to carry most of the film and her flighty yet flinty performance is a joy to behold. She continues to impress as one of the most interesting character actresses working in films today.
But ultimately, FAY GRIM turns out to be something of a disappointment. Hartley's approach is as if he decided to make the kind of political thriller that was prevalent in the 1970s (like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR or THE PARALLAX VIEW) and turn it into a screwball comedy. It's a bad fit and strands an intriguing and talented cast.
Rating: C MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexuality Running time: 118 mins.