Fay Grim

(USA/Germany - 2006)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Parker Posey, Jeff Goldblum, Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Elina Lowensohn, Saffron Burrows, Liam Aiken, Leo Fitzpatrick
Genre: Comedy/Thriller
Director: Hal Hartley
Screenplay: Hal Hartley
Cinematography: Sarah Cawley
Composer: Hal Hartley

Hal Hartley may have a sequel to his most popular film Henry Fool after a series of largely unnoticed features, but he can’t be accused of trying to recapture his former glory through the usual rehashing and repackaging. For better or worse, despite maintaining all the characters who could logically have played a role, Fay Grim arguably bares less resemblance to Henry Fool than his non-related early features such as The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, and Simple Men do to each other.

Hartley’s films were always of their time, but his initial work were intimate tales of a few characters making a crucial but ordinary change in their lives. His recent films have satirized wider contemporary subjects: mass media in No Such Thing, religion in Book of Life, and now terrorism in Fay Grim. Fay Grim actually continues Hartley’s comment on the relationship between art and commerce that was central to Henry Fool, but in filtering the important topics of the day through the Fool family he’s created something less specific to them.

Hartley deals with post 9/11 fear, paranoia, misunderstanding, and every shifting political alliances through a satire of espionage films. The details are essentially bizarre and ridiculous, lampooning the genre, but beyond that much of the point is no one really knows what’s going on anymore. Intelligence reports define Henry as a treasonous government agent, a Muslim terrorist ally, and simply an idiot. Similarly, his infamous confessions are now believed to have been a gibberish-laden rant because it was all in code. Attaining his books is thus important to all governments, as they may reveal satellite coordinates or provide nuclear bomb assembly instruction, that is if they aren’t simply semi-incoherent smut from a talentless self-centered egomaniac.

Fay Grim, who has coped with Henry’s disappearance at the end of the original by trying to forget him, but hasn’t really moved on, grows up quickly when CIA Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum in his best performance in years) sends her to Paris to recover ¼ of Henry’s now prized confession. Fay is in way over her head and can’t afford to be wrong, but everything has become so muddled, a hodgepodge of whimsical wish fulfillment translated and encoded back and forth, that the plethora of secret agents and professional spies are just as lost. This is a world where a stewardess (Elina Lowensohn), sometimes a topless dancer, is mistaken for a spy and a former janitor who killed a daughter molester is sought not for fleeing justice but for valuable secrets that may decide the fate of the world.

Harley forces us to take Henry seriously in Fay Grim, in largely the same fashion he forced us to reckon with Simon Grim in Henry Fool. Granted, nothing in this absurdist delight of a charming disaster has tongue too far removed from cheek, but in any case Henry becomes mainstream. His notoriety as the on the lamb brother-in-law of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Simon, now serving a decade long sentence for aiding and abetting Fool’s escape, which of course was major media fodder, and now as a terrorist has made him publishable. Again, the quality of the work is irrelevant as long as there’s controversy surrounding it. People will pay for it to see if it’s really just filth, or to try to solve the code. Again, we are denied any of Henry and Simon’s actual prose (okay, we do learn that the opening line of Henry’s confession is his famous line “an honest man is always in trouble”), because whether it’s of any quality is meaningless. In Fay Grim, Henry’s confession also serves as the MacGuffin.

It’s probably a mistake that Henry’s family is able to decode the orgy-in-a-box Henry sends his 14-year-old son Ned Grim (Liam Aiken), which as you’d expect Hartley regularly references, milking for innumerable jokes, but we never actually see. Their learning something from it gives us proof of Henry’s intentions and importance we’d be better off without, especially so early, as the whole film seems stronger when we are allowed to believe that since 9/11 a world traveler in exile is automatically suspected of various nefarious activities. In any case, Hartley’s fixation on porn has never provided anything funnier.

Fay Grim is a more visually oriented film than Hartley has made in the past. Almost the entire movie is shot in Dutch angle, which looks as though the cameraman survived the war but had to have his foot amputated to prevent the spread of gangrene. I guess Hartley’s point in having Sarah Cawley utilize the technique is to point out that were aren’t seeing things straight, though he includes a purposely hokey score so it may also be his way of sending up the visual manipulation of spy films. Hartley keeps most of the action discussed rather than shown, but the film gets bogged down with too much exposition. His imitating of Jean-Luc Godard has him regularly putting text on the screen, but while Godard often benefited from using it conceptually, Hartley just uses it to explain his largely pointless plot, and in that form it seems intrusive. Though Fay Grim isn’t an action film despite IMDb’s claim, Hartley isn’t at his best because he strays from his character development strengths so he can maneuver the endless pawns who, even when inhabited by familiar faces such as Saffron Burrows and Lowensohn, never serve as more than functionaries.

Henry Fool was Hartley’s best film due to the infinitely quotable dialogue, mostly from Henry, who unfortunately only plays a minor role in Fay Grim, withheld until the final quarter of the movie. As the title suggests, this is Fay’s film. She should have been better developed in the original, but even though she’s the entire focus of the movie, Hartley devotes too much time to the machinations to develop her into one of his memorable characters. We see Fay grow from the party girl of the early portion of Henry Fool to someone wandering through life without a husband or money through the usual Hartley right of passage of taking a chance and accepting change, but once she’s displaced the spy games take precedent. Parker Posey isn’t as excellent as in Broken English, but does quite a good job, regularly eliciting chuckles by responding to her world drastically restructuring if not crumbling by noting she’s single, sort of. Fay Grim is a worthy film, though more likely to please fans of Hartley in general than fans of Henry Fool specifically. The end result could have been better, but at least it isn’t simply more of the same.


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