FAY GRIM Review
It is years following the events of Henry Fool. Henry is long gone, disappeared and presumed to have fled the country. Famed poet Simon Grim is in prison for his part in helping Henry's escape. Henry's wife, the neurotic and oversexed Fay Grim, is living the single life - sort of - and not dealing well. Their son Ned, now fourteen, shows every sign of following in the path of his famously dissolute father. It's all family dysfunction as normal until one morning the CIA arrives on Fay's doorstep in the form of one Agent Fulbright. Seems Fay may not have known her husband so well after all ...
With Fay Grim writer-director Hal Hartley takes a simply enormous risk. Not only does he set out to make a sequel to his most famous work - always a somewhat dodgy proposition in the world of the American indie, particularly with such character driven work - but he makes a sequel that completely turns the original film on its head, completely undercutting what you thought you knew about Henry Fool's titular character while somehow also seeking to remain true to his characters and the feel of the original film. It's the sort of move that could - should, really - have blown up in his face and yet he makes it work, and work beautifully.
Here's the thing. The Henry Fool of the first film is an enormously debauched man, an egotistical blowhard filled with literary pretensions and driven by his appetites for booze and women. Paying the bills as a garbageman he is working to compile his "Confessions", his supposed literary masterwork, and along the way mentors young Simon Grim in his own writing. That Simon goes on to international fame while Henry's own work is dismissed as complete trash stings more than a little. These things all hold true here in Fay Grim. The key to the change, however, are Henry's Confessions. The books, you see, are bad because they are, in fact, an elaborate code. Henry is a career CIA man, a deep cover operative who has had a hand overthrowing governments in Chile, Afghanistan and beyond, and he has been coding CIA secrets into his writing. The events of Henry Fool are revealed here to be a brief domestic interlude, a failed attempt at a 'normal' life, and now Henry's past is catching up not only with him but also with Simon, Fay and Ned.
The CIA, of course, has become aware of the existence of Henry's books - a collection of hand written notebooks - and wants them desperately before their secrets are spilled. Two have turned up in France and to exploit a treaty law they convince Henry's wife, Fay, that he has died and that the books are now her rightful property, property that France is legally obliged to turn over. Fay agree to go claim the books on condition that the CIA, in turn, free her brother from prison so that he may act as a sort of father figure to Ned, just expelled from school after being discovered getting a blow job from a sixteen year old girl just down the hall from the principal's office. But it's not just the CIA that wants the books, and Fay is immediately swept into a web of espionage and intrigue that sees the Americans, French, Israelis, Russians and god knows who else all competing for her loyalty and for the books that she holds.
But this is no Bourne film. Fay Grim is still every bit a Hal Hartley picture, which means it is driven by dialog, ideas and quirky characters rather than by chases and adrenaline. The scale is enlarged somewhat with a number of international locales but this is still every bit a little American indie and the great charm of the piece is watching Parker Posey as Fay stumbling her way through events well beyond her control. The film satirizes the international intelligence world, terrorist fears and international power struggles with a plot that revolves around books that may very well be nothing more than copies of misinformation planted by the pursuing agencies years before - yes, the CIA spends all of its time here chasing its own lies - but while the politics are certainly present Hartley keeps them firmly in place as subtext, keeping the focus squarely on his cast. The regular Hartley players - Posey, James Urbaniak, Chuck Montgomery, Thomas Jay Ryan - are all stellar and Jeff Goldblum is a natural addition to this world as Agent Fulbright. The film is clever and charming, proof that 'intelligent' and 'entertaining' can very well go hand in hand.
The new DVD release is strong. The transfer is excellent, presented anamorphically in its correct ratio with audio in 5.1 and 2.0 varieties. Included are a a sixteen minute 'Making Of' composed largely of cast and crew interviews, and episode of HDNet's Higher Definition film series devoted to the film, a few minutes of deleted scenes and a trailer. This one comes highly recommended whether you be a Hartley fan already or a newcomer to his work.