“Henry Fool” is the whole nine yards on Hal Hartley in one movie. Poetic, bawdy, contemplative, often side-wrenchingly funny and finally quite touching, this tale about a nerdy garbage man whose life is changed by an egocentric hobo philosopher is flawed only by its length. Trimming by some 15 minutes, especially in the second half, would considerably increase pic’s commercial legs without disturbing its precision crafting.
After the enjoyable but slight “Flirt” (1995), essentially a pit stop in his career, Hartley has come back with a picture that, while still championing life’s losers and everyday Joes, reaches out further than any of his movies to date, wrapping barbed observations on everything from politics to publishing in its portrait of a working-class New Jersey family.
Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) is a terminally shy, tongue-tied garbage man who’s the sole breadwinner for his clinically depressed mom (Maria Porter) and waspish, libidinous sister, Fay (Parker Posey). Enter Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a mysterious, unshaven bum with a gift for words who takes up residence in their grotty basement. After warning Simon that “I’ve been bad — repeatedly,” Henry immediately encourages him to start putting any thoughts he may have on paper. Henry has a handwritten manuscript, entitled “Confession,” which he claims will challenge the giants of literature when he sees fit to bestow it on the world.
The words start pouring out of Simon — and in perfect iambic pentameters, qualifying him as a poet. Many of his everyday acquaintances are transported by the results (which the audience never gets to hear), and soon student journalists are interviewing Simon. Middle America, however, thinks his work is disgusting and pornographic — at a time when a local pol is running on a back-to-basics ticket for the presidency.
Meanwhile, at home, Henry casually seduces Simon’s mother rather than the more likely Fay, and is revealed as a paroled con originally sent down for having sex with a 13-year-old. When Simon unsuccessfully visits a publisher (Chuck Montgomery) on Henry’s recommendation, he also learns that Henry was the janitor at the company rather than a trusted colleague.
Henry arranges for some of Simon’s work to be posted on the Internet instead, and Simon becomes a national celebrity, courted by publishers and unhooked at last from the psychological domination of Henry. Pupil and master finally quarrel, but several years later Simon is able to do his former friend (now brother-in-law since marrying Fay) a major service.
More than any of Hartley’s previous work, “Henry Fool” is many things at the same time: a sly dig at the conformity of American culture, as well as its new conservatism; a near mini-epic on a New Jersey blue-collar family and its local circle; a basically upbeat portrait of how the unlikeliest people can reinvent themselves; and, most Hartleyesque of all, an examination of the way in which life deals the most unexpected hands and redefines individuals’ relationships to one another.
Most of all, the pic delights in its sheer control, and love of the power of words. Though Hartley, as always, knows exactly where to place the camera — summoning up a self-contained world, despite shooting in 1.66 and mostly medium-shot and close-up — it’s the dialogue that powers the movie, from the lush verbiage of Henry to one-line zingers from the hard-assed Fay. When it’s good, the script for “Henry Fool” is Hartley at his funniest and most left-field.
Pic is, however, too long. Despite the changes in tempo — bunches of short scenes suddenly propelling the story forward, followed by a slower rhythm to contemplate the effect — the movie often marks time in its second half, when the audience already has enough info on the characters to push ahead. Henry’s dialogue, especially, has less snap and crackle here than in the wonderful first hour.
In his first screen role, Canadian-born legit actor Ryan is terrific as Henry Fool, dominating the screen like some kind of battered revivalist preacher and handling the cadences of Hartley’s dialogue (and sudden shifts of tone) with aplomb. As the initially “simple” Simon, Urbaniak grows with the movie, essentially straight man to Ryan’s scene-stealer. Posey’s acid-tongued, oversexed Fay is one of the consistent delights of the pic as well as one of its subtlest perfs.
Other roles, all smallish, are well caught, especially Kevin Corrigan as a street punk-turned-right-wing political canvasser. But Hartley’s Japanese wife, Miho Nikaido (from “Flirt”), has a nothing part as a Vietnamese store owner.
Tech credits are typically well tooled, from Mike Spiller’s clean photography to Hartley’s own gentle music, which adds momentum and warmth.