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Weekly Alibi Poetic Licentiousness

By Devin D. O'Leary

AUGUST 17, 1998:  While other so-called "art film" directors have gone on to achieve some measure of mainstream success (hell, Steven Soderbergh directed the latest George Clooney movie), writer/producer/director Hal Hartley remains firmly entrenched in the funky, low-budget world that spawned him a decade ago. Apparently, employing anyone ever mentioned in People magazine or working for any company even partly owned by a major movie studio effectively bars these auteurs from ever using the mantle "independent filmmaker" again. It also opens them up to all kinds of ridicule from cinesthete snobs who shun any film that even smells of Southern California. With a solid five feature films under his belt, though, Hartley has managed to hone his craft to perfection without rising so much as an inch above the Sundance crowd. Hartley's impressive indie résumé (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Simple Men, Amateur, Flirt) is capped off now with what could be his finest endeavor, Henry Fool.

Henry Fool tells the story of übernerd Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), a New York sanitation worker so socially inept, most folks think he's retarded. The generally tacit Simon lives with his heavily medicated mother and his no-nonsense slut of a sister ("After a couple of drinks, plenty of people mistake me for 18"). One fateful day, a greasy-haired, chain-smoking fellow in a tattered suitcoat moves into the empty basement apartment below Simon and his dysfunctional clan. The fellow's name is Henry Fool, and he is destined to change Simon's life forever.

Henry harbors delusions of being an intellectual, but he is clearly an insensate, axiom-dishing nobody. He's in the process of scribbling down his life's story ("a confession," he calls it), which he firmly believes will "blow a hole this wide" in the literary world's perceptions--that is if he ever gets around to finishing it. Henry forms a quick bond with Simon (probably because the dishrag-willed Simon is so easy to act superior around). Henry gifts the young man with a notebook and a pencil, so that the tangle-tongued youth can write down his thoughts when unable to speak them aloud.

Rather surprisingly, Simon begins to transcribe everything in his head and has soon composed a novel-length poem. Henry's work has a most profound and unusual effect on all who read it. Some cry. Some are deeply offended. A mute girl sings out loud after perusing one of his stanzas. His sister has her period a week and a half early. Obviously there's something to Simon's work. As time goes on, Simon and Henry Fool begin to switch places--the self-styled intellectual loses his cool while the self- conscious genius becomes more confident, more well-spoken and more famous. This could have been a simple parable about jealousy and wounded intellectual pride--it isn't. As horrible a man as Henry Fool seems to be, he is in fact the most important influence (both artistically and personally) on Simon Grim's life.

This film is quite different than Hartley's previous work. For one, its scope (in both time and character) is much larger than anything he's previously tackled. At first, Hartley relies on his usual icy emotionality. There are plenty of somnambulant pauses between lines of dialogue, just to remind us we're watching an art film. As Simon comes into his own, though, the pace begins to change, and everything takes on a snazzy snap. First-time screen star Thomas Jay Ryan (a live-wire discovery) injects some buzzy energy into his drunken egomaniac of a character. As despicable as Henry could have been, Hartley and Ryan have tempered him with honesty--admitting his weaknesses, which are "deep and many." There's also a great deal more earthiness to this film than other Hartley flicks. Sex, violence and other depraved forms of behavior are on frequent display. Simon's writing allegedly deals with the decay of society, and in some ways Hartley is displaying that moral unraveling of the cultural fabric through his characters.

That isn't to say, however, that Henry Fool is all slate face and slick moralizing. Hartley has a devious sense of humor--one that sneaks in under your radar. Sometimes you don't even recognize the humor of a joke until it passes you by and slaps you on the back. This eccentric dark humor buoys a film that, in the hands of another director, could have sunk into a swamp of unpleasant behavior and uncomfortable images.

Although the film takes place in Queens, the setting more closely resembles a place called Hartleyville. Henry and Simon are the central characters here, but that hasn't stopped Hartley from assembling his usual aggregation of supporting weirdoes. There's the thrill-seeking junkie who gets caught up in the fervor of a conservative political campaign. There's the faithless priest who helps Simon broker a book deal ("Hold out for 150,000"). There's Simon's nymphomaniac sister (Parker Posey, the queen of the indies, blessing this film with her presence). This is one oddball ZIP code full of eccentric characters and queer situations--and Hartley finds time to cultivate a genuine fondness for all of them.

Henry Fool is a remarkable work--the kind of film that gets your brainpan bubbling. Lusty humor battles for attention with intellectual suppositions, and both come out winners. If Hartley keeps up this pace, there's no telling how much longer he can hide from mainstream scrutiny. Your 15 minutes are calling, Hal.

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