Henry Fool
Director: Hal Hartley. Cast: Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey, Maria Porter, Kevin Corrigan, Diana Ruppe, Jan Leslie Harding, Nicholas Hope, Chuck Montgomery, Veanne Cox, James Saito, Miho Nikaido, Liam Aiken, Gene Ruffini. Screenplay: Hal Hartley.

Very likely the strangest experience I'll have in a theatre all year was my viewing of Henry Fool, a picture which I found almost intolerable to sit through—literally, since I almost left on four separate occasions—but which ends with such a surprising eloquence and confluence of long-suppressed emotion that I felt in retrospect as though I had enjoyed myself. I couldn't have been more shocked, but a story that deliberately meanders and sidewinds for almost two and a half hours, proudly unmindful of conventional narrative techniques, suddenly steps up and hits an all-American home run of a climax at the end. I might charge that the English language should offer an adequate term for this sort of confused viewer reaction, but I doubt enough films are like Henry Fool to warrant such a word's being coined.

Not that the un-plot or eccentric characters ever, even in those final moments, suddenly bear the stamp of convention. Simon (James Urbaniak), whose face looks from some angles like a perfect square and from others like an upturned, equilateral triangle, is a garbage man with a personality and demeanor as shifty and ungainly as his strangely angled face. He is the kind of guy who in the first three scenes of the movie gets caught peeping on a couple having sex, drinks milk out of a carton before he realizes it's curdled, and then accidentally throws up on a fellow patron in a Qwik-E-Mart....and yet, Urbaniak makes his awkwardness so convincingly essential a part of Simon's personality that we don't process these events as a particularly bad day for Simon. It all seems pretty par for the course when your sister is a jobless, hypersexual nag, your mother sits around in her bathrobe stroking her split ends, and you operate a trash compacter. It's enough to drive a youngish guy into the street, and it does, but not with the expected result. Instead of being hit by a car or falling into a gutter, Simon merely puts his ear quite literally to the ground, listens, and almost instantaneously witnesses the appearance of a disheveled, flustered figure coming over the crest of the road.

The man who has arrived into the picture and into Simon's life, seemingly forever, is a dilettante poet named Henry Fool, and his quasi-phantasmic appearance as Simon bows in the street is one of several bizarre events in the film that bears his name that neither offer nor require any explanation. If there's one quality writer-director Hal Hartley possesses, it is the courage of his convictions. Unfortunately for us (and, as we see, for Simon), Hartley's convictions are also to make Henry such an insufferable lout, such a self-important, tyrannical, and libidinal bad apple, that the mere withstanding of his presence on screen required on my part an almost bodily act of concerted endurance. Henry decides after one quick look around—and we're inclined to agree with them, though we later doubt our wisdom—that Simon's life is screaming for improvement, and that self-expression and realization through writing will be a perfect avenue for him to get out of both the figurative and the actual dumps he inhabits. Then again, while he encourages Simon to put pencil to paper, he will allow no one to read the pages of his own magnum opus, a collective of thirteen Composition books that he refers to only as his "Confession."

The religious connotations of the term "confession" could well be in place, as could the criminal sense of the word, since we find out rather early that Henry was accused of some sexual misdeed in the not-too-distant past. The movie eventually digs a little deeper into that issue, but it sure takes its damn time; instead, Hartley weaves an O. Henry-ish tale of ironic success juxtaposed against another character's totally unprepared-for failure, all considered within the general concern of the film that no one can interpret art definitively or infallibly, so who is to evaluate art at all, and how?

Oh, and then there's that nymphomaniac sister, played at the outset by Parker Posey in her full-tilt braying-ass mode, but then she settles down into a vague and more listless sort of mulishness. Look, she's not an attractive character.

Perhaps it is clear that Henry Fool poses a rich and provocative theoretical debate about art and loyalty, but that the narrative itself is a little too posed, too schematic and self-consciously allegorical ("Simon Grim," "Henry Fool"), to make it an altogether fun or immediately rewarding exercise in which to participate. The saving grace of the film during its most tedious chapters is the striking Urbaniak, a mercurial and hawk-eyed presence unlike any other I know of in contemporary film. But before you decide that you care only for him, or maybe not even for him, wait until a series of typically baroque misunderstandings and table-turnings have produced the unpredictable concluding chapters of the film. Who knew how broadly and deeply my compassion would extend to so many of these characters? I would much rather talk or write about Henry Fool than ever, ever sit through it again; no matter what else exists to recommend the material, that quality is enough in my mind to challenge its credentials as a specifically motion picture entertainment. If only the pictures that can really make you think could also be the ones that you really, really liked to watch. Grade: B

(in July 1998: C+)

Cannes Film Festival: Best Screenplay

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