Hartley’s auteur credits were cemented with a string of hip art house flicks released throughout the ’90s: The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Simple Men, Amateur, Flirt. Since Henry Fool was released in 1997, however, Hartley’s star has faded somewhat, dimmed by a string of obscure short films and largely unseen features (2001’s fantasy-tinged No Such Thing, 2005’s sci-fi-laced The Girl From Monday). Fay Grim takes Hartley back to his golden age by dropping in on the characters and situations he created 10 years ago in Henry Fool.
Henry Fool told the story of a socially inept garbage man (James Urbaniak) befriended by a witty, abrasive and mostly talentless novelist (Thomas Jay Ryan). The dark comedy had the titular Henry coaching his pal Simon Grim to overcome his awkwardness by putting his private thoughts on paper. In the end, the film worked a nifty bit of role reversal with Simon becoming a world-famous poet and Henry descending into bitter drunkenness.
The sequel, if you can really call it that, recasts the first film in an entirely different light. While the first was a bleak comedy about literary fame and professional jealousy, the follow-up is a sometimes screwball parody of spy thrillers. It’s as if Francis Ford Coppola came back to do The Godfather: Part IV and turned it into a Bollywood musical. Those who have seen Henry Fool will be intrigued to see what new weirdness Hartley has wrought on his characters. But if you’ve never seen Henry Fool, you’re just fine starting here, as Fay Grim is such a markedly different beast.
Fay Grim picks up the decade-later story thread with Simon’s formerly slutty sister (Parker Posey) raising a now-teenaged son (shaggy-haired Liam Aiken from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events), the product of her affair with Henry. Her brother Simon, the notorious poet, is now cooling his heels in federal prison, having helped Henry Fool escape the country with a phony passport 10 years ago. Henry hasn’t been seen since, leaving Fay “single ... sort of” (as she puts it).
One day, a dogged CIA agent (Jeff Goldblum) shows up at Fay’s house demanding information. Seems Henry wasn’t exactly what he seemed to be. He was actually a double (or possibly triple, or maybe even quadruple) agent working for the U.S. government. Spy industry scuttlebutt ties him to every major government scandal in the last several decades, including the Iran-Contra affair. That lousy, pretentious novel he was writing in the last movie? Turns out it was actually a coded document spilling the state secrets of half the governments on Earth. Blackmailed into helping recover her fugitive ex-husband’s diaries, Fay finds herself shipped to Paris to wrangle with assorted superspies, terrorists and assassins.
Darkly humorous as Henry Fool was, Fay Grim is pure, preposterous comic nonsense. The film never seems to take itself seriously for a moment, tossing more Robert Ludlum-inspired plot twists into the mix than possible and putting its heroine into various near-slapstick situations. (One in particular involves a vibrating phone and a jacket with no pockets.)
Ultimately, it’s a little hard to figure out what viewers are supposed to take away from Fay Grim. It’s fun and as well-crafted as any previous Hal Hartley film. But it also has the vague feel of an elaborate put on. In a way, this is one of Hartley’s most commercial films, and yet his deadpan humor and heavy meta screenplay seem to be ribbing viewers for actually enjoying this stupidly commercial genre of film. Most of the characters speak in a stilted, self-conscious style, heightening the “movie” aspect of it all. Every camera angle, meanwhile, is deliberately askew, as if Alfred Hitchcock shot the entire thing while drunk off his ass.
There’s little doubt watching Fay Grim that Hartley’s acerbic, flipside-of-Hollywood view is back in full force. As a follow-up to the still-prescient Henry Fool, the absurdist nonsense of Fay Grim can’t help but deflate its predecessor just a little. Taken on its own terms, however, it’s an effortless satire of post-9/11 paranoia rooted by the performance of the always radiant, always welcome Parker Posey. Still, the iconoclastic filmmaker might want to consider treating his medium with a little less flippancy next time.