Epics aren't what they used to be. Hal Hartley's new film Henry Fool has been described using the "e" word by sources ranging from Janet Maslin to Hartley himself. But instead of the noble buddy team of Achilles and Patroclus, here we have a rather more scruffy duo, Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), a garbage man who's wound so tight he can scarcely open his mouth to speak, and Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), the garrulous, profane, criminal and inspired -- though apparently not talented -- writer who befriends him, and teaches him to communicate.
When the pair first meets, Simon has come home from a rough day behind the truck. The garbage he encountered included a man and woman copulating virtually on the street itself. Simon can't take his painfully intense gaze off the fun-lovers, and has to run for his life when they see him and take offense. Once home, he finds his medication-addled mother (Maria Porter) nodding in approval at the sexual grunts coming from the bedroom of his sister Fay (Parker Posey). "She's got an ex-con in there she brought home from the bar," says Mom. "Good for her," she continues. "You gotta get it while you can."
But Simon's not getting anything but disgusted. And in what has the feel of an odd private ritual, he goes outside to lie down in the middle of the street and put his ear to the pavement. There, he rather mystically detects (or perhaps conjures) the swaggering Henry Fool.
The day after his arrival, Fool pauses en route to Fay's bedroom, where she awaits him, to first ogle spaced-out Mom, and then mount her, causing quite a commotion.
No, Henry's immediate purpose is to stir up the painfully repressed Simon, and help him find his voice. Henry is a writer -- the crimes and misdemeanors of his past are only chapters in the unedited novel that is his life -- a sort of low-rent Henry Miller who bestows a blank notebook and stubby pencil on Simon after the latter disappears into the chasm of a sentence he's trying to articulate. "Next time you can't say what you want," Henry advises, "just write it down, instead."
It's Hartley's rather enormous, but lightly handled, conceit that is what Simon sits down to write; it's he, and not Henry, who produces an earthshaking, cage-rattling text.
Hartley is more interested in the effects of Simon's work -- and Henry's, I suppose -- than with the words they actually produce. As those reactions are refracted through the gruesomely beautiful urban jungle that surrounds the characters, we get a wide-ranging tour of American society, Hartley-style, complete with a sad and ineffectual priest, a mute Vietnamese shopkeeper (who slips into song after reading a few of Simon's lines), sanctimonious politicians and their misguided blind followers, and working-class (even if nobody's working) American women for whom life seems to offer nothing but a quick lay, a closed fist and a lifetime supply of "medicine" (we don't get to read the poem or the prescription on Simon's mother's bottle).
But the film is most brilliant, most masterful, when it sticks close to the emotions of a large handful of characters, and surprises us over and over with even the meanest (in the sense of smallest) character's hidden depths. Mom, for example, is for most of the film a stereotypical, drug-addled, castrating nag, whom we hold largely responsible for Simon's early emotional constipation. But late in the film, we find her at the family piano, playing beautifully. Oh, we think, so she did have a life. But Hartley doesn't stop there. Simon walks in and compliments Mom on her "nice" playing, to which she replies, "It was nice, but not extraordinary," and bitterly closes the piano. Interestingly, Hartley implies that Simon's writing is bogus -- either that or the first publisher he goes to, a man of a certain integrity, is an idiot -- but Hartley doesn't seem to care. The film is about authenticity, but it's authentic humanity, rather than artistic vision, that he's after.
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Henry Fool won't be forgotten anytime soon, not for its string of perfect images -- the scalded Simon lying in the bathtub, with his mother pouring ice cubes over him; the hyper-close-up of Simon's stubby pencil, poised to write his first word; the sheer painterly beauty of many of the backgrounds -- nor for Hartley's combination of heart and cunning, in revealing character.
It's not a perfect film; he should have edited out one or two of the film's many strands, so that it didn't wind up feeling labored. Henry Fool himself, while a compelling figure, is not the Mephistopheles Hartley apparently had in mind (Ryan is too likable an actor). And Hartley's jokes about the heights Simon attains in the literary world are more odd than funny.
But still, he feels much closer to being that Lower Eastside Godard that his earliest films hinted at, one who, by the way, hasn't forgotten his blue-collar, Long Island roots. He feels like a contender, not a shadow-boxer.
Directed by Hal Hartley. With James Urbaniak, Thomas Jay Ryan and Maria Porter.