Fay Grim
Director: Hal Hartley. Cast: Parker Posey, Jeff Goldblum, James Urbaniak, Elina Löwensohn, Chuck Montgomery, Harald Schrott, Anatole Taubman, Saffron Burrows, Liam Aiken, Thomas Jay Ryan, D.J. Mendel, Jasmin Tabatabai, Leo Fitzpatrick, Robert Seeliger, Adnan Maral, J.E. Heys, Sibel Kekilli, Tim Seyfi. Screenplay: Hal Hartley.

Photo © 2007 Magnolia Pictures/HDNet Films
For anyone who found Hal Hartley's 1998 literary-miserabilist parable Henry Fool as itchy and enervating as I did—and hopeully for people who enjoyed Henry Fool, too—this freewheeling exercise in self-aware but plummy absurdity arrives as an engaging surprise. On the DVD, co-star Jeff Goldblum refers to the film astutely as a "Hal Hartley bouillabaise of complications," and while I agree that the narrative kerfluffles and tonal flip-flops are in good part characteristic of this writer-director, the particularly baroque convolutions of Fay Grim struck me as somehow taking the piss out of its glum and self-congratulatory predecessor. Fay Grim insists on a backstory for Henry Fool's repertory of characters that none of the carry-over actors were remotely playing or even imagining in the first film, involving highest-level espionage, arcane encryptions, mini hostage crises, covert agents with the names of European auteurs, and one black, collared, ankle-length coat designed for a life of couture blackmail. (That coat, capped off by its tasty punchline of fake pockets, gets my vote for garment of the year, above even Keira Knightley's green dress and Johnny Depp's swimming costume.) The noodlework of Hartley's screenplay is, as ever, desultory and a bit overdone, especially by the last half-hour, when the joke of the film's own narrative incomprehensibility has started to play itself out. But the nicest surprise of the movie is how long and how well Fay Grim works as a contemporary screwball comedy, a genre from which Hartley's diffuse yet severe sense of irony would seem to disbar him. The secret identities, unexpected packages, eccentric characters, verbal mannerisms, spontaneous flights to Paris, and colorful, nicely invigorated supporting cast all give the farcical aspirations of the script a genuine workout, instead of turning the screenplay into a joke against itself or a hipster artifact unintended for the rest of us; with major adjustments in style, pace, and music, you can imagine Leo McCarey or Howard Hawks picking up this project and running with it.

Because Hartley is such a temperamentally different director, Fay Grim can't help "commenting on" the screwball tradition which, in its more enjoyable moments, the movie simply reprises, as it does some formal tricks from Godard, Truffaut, and Marker's handbooks. Those freeze-frame montages of action are a film-buff allusion to the film's own flirtation with francophilia, and they also, I suspect, cut a lot of corners in the film's budget, to say nothing of avoiding the labor and time required for actual shoot-outs. These scenes, then, are emblematic of Fay Grim, a movie that all but admits certain limitations in coherence and depth, but which flaunts its seams with such goofy, acerbic panache and through the exertions of such game and intelligent performers that the whole enterprise stays afloat, even when Hartley goes for one or three or twelve too many canted angles, or when he dips his toe a little too far into his mad, mostly facetious conjectures about global politics. As expected, I suppose, Parker Posey is the linchpin of the movie, keeping it fresh with her spontaneous and riffy inflections, her playfully discombobulated physical vocabulary, and her darting glances, all of which keep Fay Grim from hardening as Henry Fool did into a flatter, more monotonous aesthetic. Posey is a more self-assured and efficient performer than she was in 1998, and she has delicious fun taking her line-readings and rhythms into unexpected directions, instead of just Up and Out like she did in Henry Fool. She accepts and connects with how unsophisticated Fay is, without assuming that this is a blight on her character, or something to be defensively compensated for. She also allows Fay—probably out of total sympathy, given the obscurity and difficulty of her own actorly assignment—to flounder amid this unknowable world of transatlantic secret agenthood but also, quite humorously, to play with what she perceives as the chic and exotic aspects of jet-setting intrigue. Look how she self-consciously strikes the pose of "Mysterious Spy" as she attempts to seduce a gentlemanly operative named Andre (Harald Schrott), while visibly hoping that she knows what she's doing, or that he, at least, knows what he's doing. Given how funny Posey enables Fay Grim to be, and how artfully and almost mysteriously she does it—generating constant energy without giving an obviously "energetic" performance—the final surprise is the resonance of her final scenes, first involving the rescue of an unexpected ally and followed by a one-two punch of that gross, humiliating disappointment that was so much more Henry Fool's stock in trade. Granted, Posey isn't always the kind of actress and Fay Grim certainly isn't the kind of movie that can do fullest, most intricate justice to the emotional demands and possibilities of these scenes, but when Fay gets stopped in her tracks (in a way that she, and we, should have seen coming), the moment really works. And Hartley's lingering, frustrating inability to properly incorporate a homefront subplot involving Fay's son Ned (Liam Aiken) suddenly echoes with different, more recklessly romantic connotations.

Either Fay Grim lifts the veils on the prevailing masquerades in Henry Fool or Fay Grim itself is a wild, impossibly escapist daydream that the determinedly "real" Henry Fool is having about itself. Maybe, given how strongly both movies characterize Henry himself and the beetle-eyed poet Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) via their different kinds of literary endeavor, we might think about Fay Grim as the stringy, delusional, but spirited lark that Fay—mischievous and earnest now, where she was once just obnoxious—might write if she ever put pen to paper. Hartley makes a good argument for non-converts to return to Henry Fool, and to keep apace of his own continued output, which had grown fairly erratic and unenthusiastically reviewed of late. Idiosyncratic and uneven but still persuasive and infectious in its pastiche of other styles and traditions, Fay Grim makes no secret of its influences and borrowed origins, but the movie is hardly imitative in any general sense, and imitating it would be almost impossible. I enjoyed its anarchic spirit, its creative breathing-room, its ridiculous screen-filling captions, its commitment to itself even as it luxuriated, perhaps too much, in its own silliness. Despite a sobering finale, I appreciated how the film suggested, mostly by comparative example to its predecessor, that artistic maturity doesn't always entail the cramping of fancy or the crystallization of ideas. This doodlebook, proficiently executed despite wandering, quite literally, all over the place, is too miniature and offbeat to turn into anybody's poster-child or on which to stake a movement, but it's just this sort of defiantly fresh air that I hope will spread in the world of high-def American indie filmmaking. Grade: B

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