Henry Fool

Director: Hal Hartley

Poetic, bawdy, contemplative, often side-wrenchingly funny and finally quite touching, Hal Hartley’s new film is about a nerdy garbage man whose life is changed by an egocentric hobo philosopher. After the enjoyable but slight Flirt (1995), essentially a pit stop in his career, Hartley has come back with a picture that, while still championing life’s losers and everyday Joes, reaches out further than any of his movies to date, wrapping barbed observations on everything from politics to publishing in its portrait of a working-class New Jersey family.
Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) is a terminally shy, tongue-tied garbage man who’s the sole breadwinner for his clinically depressed mom (Marie Porter) and waspish, libidinous sister, Fay (Parker Posey). Enter Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a mysterious, unshaven bum with a gift for words who takes up residence in their grotty basement. After warning Simon that I’ve been bad – repeatedly, Henry immediately encourages him to start putting any thoughts he may have on paper. Henry has his own handwritten manuscript, entitled Confession, which he claims will challenge the giants of literature when he sees fit to bestow it on the world.
The words start pouring out of Simon – and in perfect iambic pentameters, qualifying him as a poet. Many of his everyday acquaintances are transported by the results (which the audience never gets to hear), and soon student journalists are interviewing him. Middle America, however, thinks his work is disgusting and pornographic, especially at a time when a local politician is running on a back-to basics ticket for the presidency.
At home, Henry casually seduces Simon’s mother rather than the more likely Ray. He arranges for some of Simon’s work to be posted on the Internet, and Simon becomes a national celebrity, courted by publishers and unhooked at last from the psychological domination of Henry. Meanwhile, Henry is revealed as a paroled con originally sent down for having sex with a 13-year-old.
Henry Fool is many things at the same time: a sly dig at the conformity of American culture, as well as its new conservatism; a near mini-epic on a New Jersey blue-collar family and its local circle; a basically upbeat portrait of how the unlikeliest people can reinvent themselves; and, most Hartleyesque of all, an examination of the way in which life deals the most unexpected hands and redefines individuals’ relationship to one another.
Most of all, the film delights in its sheer control and love of the power of words. Though Hartley, as always, knows exactly where to place the camera – summing up a self-contained world in medium-shot and close-up – it’s the dialogue that powers the movie. When it’s good, the script for Henry Fool is Hartley at his funniest and most left-field.

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