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A Clever Fool

Hal Hartley's gallery of troubled eccentrics already features two bickering brothers in search of their lost father (Simple Men), three mix-and-match couples afflicted by identical love woes in three far-flung cities (Flirt) and the unlikely triptych of sexually obsessed virgin, bewildered amnesiac and ex-porn star (Amateur).

How do you top all that in the character-as-concept department? You probably don't, and that's fine with us. Hartley's latest film, Henry Fool, proves no less tart than its predecessors, and it's fueled by the director's usual deadpan surrealism. But Hartley's characters seem less schematic and more human here--as if someone had lit a fire under the icecap of his intelligence. He's not about to go mushy on us, this avatar of hip, but he doesn't mind revealing that he's made of flesh and blood.

Geeky Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) is an anonymous garbageman in nondescript Queens, saddled with a depressed mother (Maria Porter) and an under-medicated sister (Parker Posey) who cruises the bars and bodegas for sex. And there Simon's gray life might remain, were it not for the unexpected arrival of a self-styled literary genius called Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), who takes up residence not only in the Grims' dank basement but in the dozing brain of Simon Grim.

A pompous fake with a shady past who believes he's going to change the world with a magnum opus he calls his "Confession," this boozy mooch also condescends to instruct poor, dim Simon in the literary arts. To his shock, he sets loose a natural fury. Line by line, day by day, the inspired Simon creates an epic poem so odd and powerful that women fall rapt or inexplicably start to sing or play the piano upon reading a few lines. Men are struck dumb. Naturally, the local school board bans the work as pornographic. Twenty-six uneasy publishers reject it. But Simon Grim becomes a public phenomenon and quickly eclipses his ridiculous teacher. Can fame and adulation be far behind--even in anti-poetic America?

"You're like a total fuckin' rock star," sister Fay marvels. Simon's name pops up on the nightly news, and (nice New York joke) the trendy post-feminist Camille Paglia defends his genius. Scheming, grimy Henry has his own agenda, of course. He plans to ride Simon's coattails to the literary heights via a wary Manhattan publisher.

With acknowledgments to the timeless tale of Faust and Mephistopheles and the lesser-known myth of Kasper Hauser--the wild child who dazzles the civilized world--Hartley gives us a pointed meditation on the difference between ambition and talent, along with an extremely funny satire of artistic pretension and the market value of notoriety. The self-absorbed Henry is capable of pulling a copy of Big Butts down from the porn-mag shelf and announcing, "I refuse to discriminate between modes of knowing." Simon simply continues to fill his notebooks while others post his verses on--what else?--the Internet.

Hartley makes one brilliant choice in Henry Fool by refusing to give us the faintest sniff of Simon's poem--or Henry's inept doggerel. We are left to imagine them both. He makes another great choice when, two-thirds of the way through this rather long (137 minutes) film, it abruptly veers out of comedy both scatologically raw and intellectually polished and into the realm of fate, choice and responsibility. In the last chapter linking Simon Grim and Henry Fool, Hal Hartley transcends himself and moves all of us with a vision of redemption for which his earlier japes and jibes have not quite prepared us. The contrast is breathtaking, the effect profound. Hartley, too, blindsides the world with a poem.

--Gallo

Henry Fool.
Written, produced and directed by Hal Hartley. With James Urbaniak, Thomas Jay Ryan, Parker Posey and Maria Porter.

 
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