Hal Hartley tries to get his mojo back in “Fay Grim,” an eight-years-on sequel to his best film, “Henry Fool.” The dexterous literary voice is present in force, the performances tart and the use of high def among the best yet on a limited-budget bigscreen feature. But the purposely overwrought, archly acerbic tone has drifted into facetiousness which combines with an ever-more far-fetched plot to the point where the picture seems to disappear around the dark side of the moon. Hartley’s always-modest fan base has retreated so far after his last two, scarcely seen efforts, “No Such Thing” and “The Girl From Monday,” that it will likely take more than this to win them back.
An indie stalwart during the ’90s, Hartley used a talent for skewed dialogue and warm visuals to build a following among a bright, sophisticated public. Since leaving the States (he now lives in Berlin), the filmmaker seems to have lost meaningful contact with even his devotees while unsuccessfully trying to branch out subject-wise. Instead of growing as an artist, he seems to be treading water.
Not that there’s anything wrong with checking in on these characters nearly a decade hence; to the contrary, their predicaments at the end of “Henry Fool” essentially invite it. The neurotic Fay Grim was left with a young son when the boy’s father, the ever-mysterious, would-be literary giant Henry, vanished after he accidentally killed someone. For his complicity in Henry’s escape, Fay’s brother Simon, a garbage man turned notorious poet, was sentenced to 10 years in the pen.
Familiarity with the first film isn’t required to get involved with the new one, although an affinity for the characters certainly helps. With the same unusual and outstanding actors reassembled to continue their roles, the yarn picks up with Fay (Parker Posey, luminous even when harried) barely able to cope with raising 14-year-old son Ned (Liam Aiken), whose generosity in sharing porn with classmates is getting him kicked out of school. Fay lives off the royalty checks still being generated by Simon (James Urbaniak), whose incarceration enhanced his already scandalous reputation, and she’s dating Simon’s publisher (Chuck Montgomery).
According to Simon, Henry escaped to Sweden, but a CIA op, Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum), arrives at Fay’s door to inform her that Henry is dead and that two volumes of his vaunted “Confessions” — the epic, handwritten magnum opus Henry promised would provoke a literary earthquake — have been discovered by French authorities. Would she help recover the manuscripts? Yes, she will, but only if Simon, who possesses a third volume, is paroled.
And so commences a strange international odyssey that becomes more complicated and loony by the moment. Some viewers will undoubtedly tune out early, others will follow as far as they can — and a privileged few might make it all the way. But at a certain point, the air of a vast literary game overwhelms any feeling for the humanity of those trapped inside it, and when one ceases to see the participants as vaguely real people, motivation evaporates for trying to figure out who’s doing what to whom.
The upshot, revealed early on, is that “Confessions,” while worthless from a stylistic point of view, is a coded text full of incriminating and inflammatory secrets about the misdeeds of numerous world governments. Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), about whom Fay learns too much unsuspected new information to digest, is alive after all and on the run, and Fay needs to sort out where he and everyone else stand before it’s too late.
The journey takes Fay to Paris, then to Istanbul, where the striking climax is filmed along the waterfront. Throughout, Hartley and lenser Sarah Cawley Cabiya frame the action from cockeyed, slanted angles that are both mannered and beautiful to behold; the visuals are too self-conscious to provide a genuine sense of dislocation, but on their own terms rep nearly as rich and assured a use of the technology as do the more subtle and muted images in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s new Turkish drama “Climates.”
Technically and logistically, Hartley gets a lot onscreen for what was undoubtedly little money, and he elicits precise, pulsatingly vibrant work from his actors. What’s off is the authorial voice, which feels too smarty-pants, even smug. Short of seeing the earlier films again, it’s hard to judge whether there’s been a slight shift in Hartley’s writing or if it’s the current times that aren’t so conducive to the elaborately constructed sense of remove. Given the director’s obvious proficiency, it could be time for a brief vacation from his own original material just to see if he can find a different register for his talent.