Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim is a sequel to his 1998 comedy Henry Fool, but it’s not clear if the shabby, lower-middle-class clowns of the first film would recognize themselves in the second: They’d see their look-alikes jetting from Queens to Paris to Istanbul—cracking codes, dodging bullets, eluding American, Israeli, and Arab assassins—and figure some twisted freak was playing a prank. And in a way, some twisted freak is. The Long Island–bred Hartley is trying to shake up his aesthetic—shake it up without forsaking his gift for deadpan comedy and loopy little playlets in which misfits reach out clumsily from their solipsistic bubbles. Now residing in Berlin, Hartley has concocted the sort of project that would make his neighbor Wim Wenders giggle. In Fay Grim, he deposits the characters he has already created (and the actors he adores) into an up-to-the-minute, labyrinthine paranoid-conspiracy thriller like Syriana, so that those solipsistic bubbles are burst by the brutality of modern geopolitics. It’s a rich idea—a Hartley-esque variation on the theme of American Innocents Abroad. And it works superbly until—well, Grim’s the word.
In Henry Fool, Fay (Parker Posey) was a supporting character, the promiscuous sister of Simon Grim (James Urbaniak)—a painfully shy garbageman who worried that people thought he was “retarded” but who became, under the drunken tutelage of boarder Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), an internationally acclaimed dirty poet. The bitter joke at the movie’s core was that the composition books toted around by its balefully pretentious title character—containing a world-shattering epic he called The Confessions of Henry Fool—turned out to be full of unpublishable crap. The bitter joke at the core of Fay Grim is that they aren’t unpublishable crap at all but the key to unlocking the history of American imperialism—and that intelligence agencies of many countries will do anything (and kill anyone) to get hold of them. Henry Fool isn’t some fourth-rate Henry Miller. He’s the McGuffin Man!
Oh, what a brilliant 180-degree turn, even more brazenly absurd than an episode of 24. With celebrity poet Simon in prison for helping Henry escape to Stockholm (long story) and Henry nowhere to be found, it’s Fay (who married Henry when he knocked her up) who becomes a pawn of the CIA (led by Jeff Goldblum), the Israelis (led by tall Saffron Burrows in a leather mini slit up to here), and sundry Frenchmen, Arabs, and Turks. It’s Fay who must track down Henry—if he’s still alive, that is—with the help of Simon, Simon’s publisher Angus (Chuck Montgomery), her teenage son (the splendidly down-to-earth Liam Aiken, reprising his first film role), and Henry’s jumpy, teensy Slavic ragamuffin girlfriend (Elina Löwensohn).
Hartley dabbled in mock-Hitchcockian suspense in Amateur, but Fay Grim is even more skewed. It’s literally skewed. I estimate that the camera is tilted on average about twenty degrees—to the left in one shot, to the right in the next—but when the action gets especially demented it comes perilously close to the 45-degree mark. That would be annoying (and seasickness-inducing) if Hartley and his cinematographer, Sarah Cawley-Cabiya, didn’t stick, for the most part, to medium close-ups; if the actors didn’t play it absolutely straight; and if the leading lady weren’t someone who—like the much-missed Adrienne Shelly in Hartley’s early films—you couldn’t take your eyes off.
Fay Grim is built around Posey, who rubs some people I know the wrong way but has always rubbed me just right—I could watch that wide, smeary, downturned clown mouth for hours, even if it were just chewing gum. What makes Posey’s status as an indie-art-film-darling so delightful is how gosh-darn American she is—a pretty girl from a small town with a genius for portraying American tunnel vision in all its various incarnations (sunny, bored, greedy, insouciant, or hellaciously neurotic, depending on the role). Here she gets maximum comic mileage out of an intensely serious demeanor and a draggled mop of hennaed hair. Hartley doesn’t always help her, but Posey manages to go from an exasperated flake to the Conscience of America without losing her snap.
Until the last half-hour, that is. That’s when Hartley decides, against all the evidence, that comedy can’t be deadly serious: that he doesn’t want to remake Syriana as a tragicomic Punch and Judy show but to express his sense of helplessness in earnest. My guess is that he didn’t decide in advance to go this way. (A friend once said of Hartley, “I just can’t get on his wavelength,” and it occurred to me that Hartley probably prides himself on chasing his instincts—on not always getting on his own wavelength.) It was a great idea to cast Goldblum as the guy who reels off all the incomprehensible espionage exposition (he’s the cinema’s virtuoso blurter), but the character has no punch line. The Simon of the peerless Urbaniak is still a drag, but no longer a mythic, hilarious drag; the Henry of the peerless Ryan is still an asshole, but no longer a mythic, hilarious asshole. The final, tragically uncomprehending close-up of Posey is perfect in a way Hartley didn’t intend. It mirrors our incomprehension at his loss of imagination.