Because it’s billed as a more personal project for Mark Pellington after a string of interesting, idiosyncratic thrillers (“Arlington Road,” “The Mothman Prophecies”), “Henry Poole Is Here” is all the more disappointing. Pic’s tendency to lecture on the power of faith and religion and on the demerits of science seems to assume an almost childlike audience that needs to be spoon-fed Pablum. This tale of a single man whose medical death sentence is reversed in part by a neighborhood of believers won’t advance the profile of the always-likable Luke Wilson, and Christian moviegoers will have to show up in great numbers to keep the film from being doomed to something far less than sleeper status.
So insistent is the film that lack of belief in God is a personal failure, nonbelievers are likely to feel offended. Not since “The Passion of the Christ” has a mainstream Hollywood product insisted so firmly in faith while its deprecation of science and medicine has seemed singularly harsh.
In a Los Angeles suburb, glum Henry Poole purchases a slightly rundown home on a good street, refusing to negotiate the price with real estate agent Meg (Cheryl Hines). It looks like he’s a property flipper; he indicates to neighbor Esperanza (Adrianna Barrazza) he appreciates her housewarming gift of tamales, but firmly makes it clear he wants to be left alone. The only other irritant for Poole is a large stain on an outside stucco wall of the house.
Then, the intrusions begin. Neighbor Dawn’s (Radha Mitchell) gamin-faced daughter Millie (Morgan Lily), who hasn’t spoken a word since her divorced father left a year ago, records sounds and conversations, and Henry hears one of his played back. Then Esperanza enters his backyard without permission and starts praying to the stain of the stucco wall, insisting to Henry it displays “the face of Christ.”
Understandably peeved, particularly when Esperanza begins bringing over some of her church congregants and her priest, Father Salazar (George Lopez), to witness “the miracle,” Henry wants everyone out. Esperanza asks him, “Don’t you believe in God?”, the question seemingly a grave accusation, implying Henry has some growing to do. Albert Torres’ screenplay telegraphs that this eruption of faith will connect with and reverse Henry’s fatalism, which he expresses enigmatically with, “I won’t be here that long.”
When Millie touches a tiny blood stain that has appeared on the “face” of the stain, and is suddenly able to resume talking, Henry seems heartless for denying the church flock their new shrine. In the meantime, the symbolically named Dawn grows emotionally close to Henry, though he seems only partly able to be open with her.
Awkwardly inserted flashbacks explain the gravity (if not the nature) of Henry’s condition, with his doctor (Richard Benjamin) telling him he hasn’t long to live. The doc’s nurse, for good measure, is so inept that she can’t apply a decent shot, just one of a few jabs here at medicine and science.
Add to all this Patience (Rachel Seiferth), the checkout clerk at Henry’s grocery store, weighing in against science to Henry and citing no less than Noam Chomsky on the subject.
Wilson appears slightly pained in this performance, as if trying to find a way inside a guy who feels under the grip of fate, but who is never fleshed out on the page. By contrast, Mitchell is by far the warmest and most genuine contributor, exuding a natural sense of life and love that’s irresistible. Support, including Mexican star Barrazza, is annoying.
As with all Pellington films, overall production qualities are first-class, though a deliberately bare look to the suburban neighborhood (actually, La Mirada, Calif.) is much less compelling than a similar ‘hood in “Arlington Road.” Use of innumerable songs to bridge scenes becomes risible.