Henry Fool

(USA - 1997)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey, Kevin Corrigan, Maria Porter, James Saito, Miho Nikaido
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Director: Hal Hartley
Screenplay: Hal Hartley
Cinematography: Michael Spiller
Composer: Hal Hartley

Hal Hartley combines the themes of is previous features The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Simple Men, & Amateur into an epic portrait of the hopes and dreams, desires and ambitions, strengths and weaknesses, pitfalls and betrayals of a disenfranchised lower class community. Hartley’s movies are about everything and nothing, as he’s more interested in painting a portrait of human existence than plot. The worth of a person’s life is measured by all aspects, so Hartley incorporates big and small, good and bad. Though Michael Spiller’s evocation of the Queens community has many virtues, Hartley’s films are more toward musing theatrical works, his characters speaking in little life philosophies, their actions and history a result of their outlook and world view.

Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) is in many ways the typical intellectual, principled, antisocial Hartley hero with integrity but also a history of destruction and/or debauchery. Hartley’s leading man was previously bogged down by an anchor of a parent, but shifting that liability to Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), along with giving Henry the best dialogue he’s ever written and getting a superb performance out of Thomas Jay Ryan, who switches effortlessly between intense and comic dialogue, serious and ironic tone, sets Henry up to not only be Hartley’s most memorable characters, but one of cinema’s greats. Henry bares some resemblance to David Thewlis’ Johnny in Mike Leigh’s greatest film Naked, a vagabond genius who should be successful but has no real desire to be and can’t get out of his own way. Fool is more a romantic variety tragic hero than Thewlis’ misanthrope, an ex-con so dangerous he’s feared by the powers that be, for his writing though he’s yet to be published. Hartley doesn’t create one-dimensional heroes, with Henry being his most complex, a man who is impossible to love or hate, but who will frustrates at every corner. This social and sexual deviant is a kind of sensitive and compassionate Marquis de Sade without the sadistic streak.

Hartley avoids action, preferring to get his points across through varying a point in dialogue then allowing us to imagine the rest when he puts the characters in an applicable situation. We initially expect more of Henry Fool, as he seems such an experienced and knowing character, but he regularly alludes to having lived in the soup with lines such as “An honest man is always in trouble”, I've been bad. Repeatedly”, “We know we have fallen, for we know who we are”, and “She was an ugly and mean-spirited kid, but she knew how to play upon my weaknesses, which, I admit, are deep and many.”

When you are down on your luck in Hartley’s world, a chance meeting can begin to change your life, especially if based on a mutual problem. In Trust, Adrienne Shelly and Martin Donovan meet and bond due to reeling from their parent’s latest abuse with Donovan moving in with Shelly’s family. In Henry Fool, both Henry and Simon are characters who feel the world is out to get them. Simon is the neighborhood whipping boy, a repressed and introverted garbage man. Henry soon moves into his basement, but Hartley is a rare director who never has friendships existing in a vacuum. Your friends not only influence all the members of your family in different ways, they alter the dynamic. Simon lives with his nymphomaniac sister Fay Grim (Parker Posey), who utilizes her asset while it’s still tight and his mysteriously ill mother Mary (Marcia Porter), who Fay purportedly baby sits while Simon does his garbage job.

In between bedding the rest of the household, Henry Fool alleviates some of the despair of ridiculed and tortured Simon’s life, introducing him to the concept of writing, which quickly results in them forming a mentor/student relationship. Henry is at his best helping Simon because it motivates him and keeps him from his devices, while Simon becomes more confident and secure through believing in himself, but this isn’t really the point.

Hartley uses the character who has no idea how to write to mount a critique on the relationship between art and commerce. Simon’s work may be good or bad, but it’s definitely different if for no other rather than until he met Henry it hadn’t occurred to him to read, much less write, so he hasn’t been influenced by other writers in general, much less the latest trends. Practically all Simon knows about literature comes from Fool, who he’s never actually been allowed to read. Through the internet and a local school paper, Simon garners a cult following due to the extreme nature of his work. Predictably, this quickly spawns a counter reaction of condemnation from the moral guardians. Controversy not only trumps but renders irrelevant whatever quality the work may or may not contain, so the public eagerly awaits the release of Simon’s book, a book which would not even have been published if not for the controversy making it marketable. As an offshoot, appreciation groups form (in this case poetry reading becomes the in thing at the corner store) completing the mainstream acceptance. The artist is left notorious, if nothing else, but is notoriety the goal or the work itself? Does it matter if your art moves people in a certain way, a positive way, or simply any way? Is it better to be unknown than known for the wrong things, as the guy whose work prompted rioting, arson, and a suicide?

We are denied access to Henry and Simon’s writing, all we know is Simon was violently rejected until there was money in publishing him due to the hullabaloo. Simon promised to not allow his poetry to be published unless the publisher Angus James (Chuck Montgomery) would also publish Henry’s confession, but this was before he read it, when he’d only been intrigued through such classic teasers from Fool as, “It's a philosophy. A poetics. A politics, if you will. A literature of protest. A novel of ideas. A pornographic magazine of truly comic book proportions. It is, in the end, whatever the hell I want it to be. And when I'm through with it it's going to blow a hole this wide straight through the world's own idea of itself.” Simon offers to take much less in exchange for this concession, but when neither he nor Angus believe it’s anything but trash, Simon betrays his guru.

Everyone takes for granted that Simon’s writing is good and Henry’s is bad, but perhaps that’s simply Hartley’s point on the manipulative power of the media hype machine? Certainly the publisher’s opinion isn’t valid, as he condemned Simon’s work almost as harshly before he saw $. You don’t have to be a literary professor to know good literature, but Simon doesn’t exactly have much to compare it to beyond his own spontaneous menstruation inducing prose. Although there’s not always a correlation, everything about the way they talk and the stories they tell suggests Henry would be the far more interesting scribe. Henry tells one compelling anecdote after another, while Simon, whose never had a life, is lucky to get three words of his thought out, resulting in everything coming off as noncommittal or questioning.

Henry is easier to relate to if he’s actually the hack everyone says he is. As Hartley has a bizarre fascination with porn, which ex-nun Isabelle Huppert wrote to make a living while waiting for her mission from God in Amateur, Henry is inspired by the best and worst of literature, from the great authors to merely gazing at the pictures in skin mags. Fool is more human, more like us if he lives in denial, able to recognize quality art but as much as he tries and believes he can, never able to break though and create it himself. What’s available to him then is the life he’s always ran from. Henry has lived the artistic life, but failing to attain the success his friend now has, which allows Simon to make a living off art, he’s eventually forced to be responsible. As Hartley is more about irony than realism, the crumbling of Henry’s greatest role as Simon’s mentor coincides with Henry being forced to marry Fay and support a family due to knocking her up.

The crushing of illusions is a key theme in Henry Fool. Simon nearly gives up writing when he’s viciously rejected by 25 publishers. Street thug Warren (Kevin Corrigan) stops selling drugs because a woman he’s attracted to influences him to support a nazi politician, but he not only reverts back when the immigrant hating platform fails, he moves on to wife beating and child molestation. Family is poison in Hartley’s world, with father’s abusing their children mentally and physically in Trust or through complete and total neglect in Simple Men. Meanwhile, mothers enslave their children.

Henry Fool is the one Hartley movie where someone really succeeds, yet his opinion of success obviously isn’t much as it’s the grimmest in tone. Hartley normally has hopeful characters who are failing but find their way to a decision that grants them a life they may be able to stand. Life is discovering who you can be, reverted back to what you are, and ultimately creating a situation, usually through pregnancy, where you fall into the most acceptable of your few options.

So far Henry Fool is the best of all the Hal Hartley films I’ve seen. It’s a little better than the others in most areas, the exception being the portrayal of women, which was much better in Trust. Fay Grim essentially plays a younger version of the white trash character Edie Falco portrayed in Trust, but Hartley shows no empathy toward her this time. Though there’s no misogynist like Robert John Burke played in Simple Men, with the focus once again mainly being on the men, the women once again lack their nobility.


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