Ever since he burst on the independent scene with THE
in 1990, Hal Hartley has cornered the market
      on offbeat fare featuring quirky individuals who meet by chance —
      sometimes with unexpected consequences. Building on the themes he
      has explored in previous features, this unique writer-director has crafted
      his most ambitious project yet,
HENRY FOOL, which received an award
      for its screenplay at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Hartley has described
      the film as "an epic . . . a long story that treats a variety of themes by
      following the adventures of a particular person or group." Set primarily
      in suburban New York,
HENRY FOOL grapples with issues of talent,
      ambition and influence on a grand scale.

              At the core of the film is Simon Grim, a sanitation worker whose
      life is reflected by his name. Rail-thin, with dark horned-rimmed glasses,
      Simon appears to be "slow". He is dominated by his depressed mother
      and his sister, for whom sex is like breathing. Simon's life is clearly
      mundane; he spies on a couple smoking crack and engaging in sex.
      He hangs out at the local convenience store/coffee shop. After a
      verbal exchange with his sister, he puts his ear to the ground and
      seemingly hears the approach of the title character. One may question
      whether Simon conjures up Henry or not. For his part, this title
      character is a loud-mouthed, pushy self-proclaimed genius working on
      his memoirs, a "confession" that he expects will make him the toast of
      the literary set. Taking Simon under his wing, Henry encourages the
      garbage man to put his thoughts on paper resulting in a massive poem
      written in iambic pentameter that some find vulgar and pornographic
      and others acclaim as art. Other events happen: Simon's mother
      succeeds in one of her suicide attempts, Henry is unmasked as a
      pedophile, yet Simon's sister marries him and begins a family. But as
      the film builds to its conclusion, it becomes messy. The last sections,
      in particular, are the least plausible and most problematic; Simon has
      achieved overwhelming success, become a recluse and wins the
      Nobel Prize in literature while Henry and his family wallow in middle-class
      suburbia until a tragedy that echoes his past forces their two worlds
      to intersect again.

              Hartley is clearly a man of talent and there is much to recommend
      about this film. Drawing on Germanic literature for inspiration (he cites
 Mephistopheles in Faust as an antecedent to Henry and similarly the
      titular Kasper Hauser for Simon), Hartley has fashioned a larger-than-life
      figure and his disciple. What works best is the relationship between
      Henry and Simon, and much of the credit rests with the two
      extraordinary actors, both relative newcomers to film. Thomas Jay Ryan
      makes an appropriate Henry; fleshy, scatological, believably manic,
      veering from vulgarity to poetry. In contrast is the tall, bone-thin
      James Urbaniak as Simon. At first quiet, almost imploded, he literally
      blossoms on screen as Simon gains confidence from his writing. That
      he surpasses his mentor indeed is the stuff of tragedy — but Hartley,
      as he always does, chooses a more unconventional route to his
      denouement. Also of note are Parker Posey as Fay Grim, Simon's sister
      who eventually succumbs to Henry's charms, Kevin Corrigan as a local
      street person who undergoes a political awakening but never loses his
      capacity for violence, and Veanne Cox as a secretary who recognizes
      Simon's talents.

              To its detriment, Henry Fool runs a bit long at over two and a
      quarter hours (some judicious pruning would solve this) and some
      segments of the audience may be put off by the vulgarity and what
      Hartley calls "creatureal reality"—vomit, sex scenes, bathroom scenes.
HENRY FOOL raises some cogent issues of what constitutes art,
      censorship, ambition, mentoring, control; but ultimately few of these
      are satisfactorily addressed. I guess one could deem it a noble try,
      but one that falls short of its own aspirations.

Rating:                    B
MPAA Rating:          R for strong sexuality, violence
                                                      and language
Running time:         137 mins.
© 1998-2007 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.