Monday, June 4, 2007

Review of Fay Grim

Call me a pessimist but I almost never buy in when some once-great now-hack director puts out a new film and has it proclaimed a “return to form.” I’ve been bitten by this enough times (Woody Allen, Dario Argento, Terry Gilliam) usually with films that were above average for the slumping director but hardly up to their peak performance. Hal Hartley, who has suffered a bout of blandness almost ten years long, has proved to be an exception. I missed my overdue one-week-only date with “Fay Grim” (2006) in theaters, but snagged it early on DVD.

“Fay Grim” (2006) is a sequel to “Henry Fool” (1997), his last major success. It plays like a mixture of the first film with “Amateur” (1994), his amiable venture into the thriller genre. The typically Hal Hartley brand of comedy is present and accounted for: dry staccato delivery, precise theatrical staging, brightly lit lightly colored compositions and humor that mixes delicate amounts of absurdity and charm. Generally if you don’t like one Hal Hartley you won’t like any, but for fans (partial and committed) it is a slightly more difficult process of separating wheat and chaff.

“Fay Grim” succeeds like the best of Hartley’s work due to its script and acting. Much of the cast of “Henry Fool” (who are really Hartley regulars, but as a sequel this makes even more sense) returns, but the limelight has been turned to Fay Grim (Henry Fool’s wife played by Parker Posey). Posey carries the film as no one since Adrienne Shelly and Robert Burke in “The Unbelievable Truth” (1990) and turns in one of the most delightful comedy performances of last year playing it light and easy, but wonderfully on target. It helps that her less-sympathetic husband, Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), is kept out of most of the film and no romantic substitute fills his boots although she manages to win over every male character in the film.

Thomas Jay Ryan’s vulgar, inner-turmoil writer was the lead in the original “Henry Fool,” but while his acting was always persuasive his character is somewhat grating and pretentious. Henry’s multi-volume ‘Confessions,’ a garbled angry-poet diatribe of sexual fantasies and obscure ravings figures as the pseudo-MacGuffin to drive this sequel. Hartley, in a stroke of brilliance in my opinion, turns the tone of the series around by revealing Henry as a former CIA agent of international standing rather than the drunken, overambitious unemployed lunatic that we presumed him to be in the first film (where he mentored Simon Grim, a humble garbage man and Fay’s brother, into becoming the most controversial, if not the most important, American writer of his day). It turns out that his rambling ‘Confessions’ are a coded top-secret document now sought after by every major country in the world.

So while “Henry Fool” was a generally-domestic philosophical character drama about artists and relationships, “Fay Grim” is a globe-trotting espionage send-up with an elaborate plot and very little except Hartley’s style and the finely-honed ensemble leaving a resemblance. The plot is fun and energetic and full of contemporary issues, but it’s so confusing that it seems to satire the endless twists and turns de rigueur for the spy-vs-spy genre. In a clever meld of thriller clichés and graphic designer hipness, typeset lettering occasionally deliver us times and places and such helpful tidbits as code solutions.

The not-quite-fully-serious theme of “Fay Grim” eschews moralizing about American foreign policy and hardly comments upon the Middle Eastern debacles that the characters are embroiled in. Rather the film champions the individual civility and down-to-earth motivations of Fay over global politics or epic statements. Jeff Goldblum (as CIA agent Fulbright) does an excellent job representing the impersonal government, coming off as charismatic and human while still being morally-slippery and manipulative.

The supporting cast does a good job with particular attention to Liam Aiken as Fay’s son Ned, James Urbaniak as Simon Grim and Saffron Burrows as sexy double-agent, Juliet. Some of the characters seem extraneous considering the bulky size of the cast and scarcity of time available to devote to any particular minor member. I think too much time goes into keeping the tension high and the thrills flashing by since the middle-of-the-road special effects and action pieces don’t nearly match the dialogue and character development for entertainment value. A final complaint is the ending which, while capstoned by a rather shocking denouement, gets too bogged down in all its own heady chatter and spy clutter. Hartley has never been one for great endings.

On a technical level, Hartley plays an unusual experiment with canting, lending every shot a slight 20 degree slant. Surprisingly, and wisely, the director takes advantage of the diagonal format to find fresh framing opportunities and other formal nuance, rather than just being annoying and gimmicky. The slight angle adds an extra aid for eye-line matches and balances out the action (like the gradient that helps race cars stay on the track) amongst other subtle uses.

The music, also by Hartley, is a bit on the obvious side, but works as a source of humor in its own right. The soundtrack behaves like an over-eager band, jumping in to provide mirthful bursts of genre accompaniment (action, shock, betrayal, tension) that seem preposterously overdone for the humble Fay. It remains jazzy and jovial despite the grimmer aspects of the film and cutely reminds us that the movie is a comedy first and foremost despite the samples of more serious fare.

It seems most critics and audience members haven’t connected with “Fay Grim” (the one-week release here in St. Louis speaks volumes), but it’s a small joy for me (at least as good as the original). The film is a rare breed of a sequel that wasn’t initially planned and doesn’t ride a wave a mainstream success, but adds a whole extra layer and successfully remixes the former film’s ingredients into an entirely different genre. Parker Posey’s performance, the witty understatement, the ridiculous triple-crosses and the casual stylistic hipness make this film a smile-inducing success for the Film Walrus.

Walrus Rating: 8

8 comments:

Mad Dog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mad Dog said...

I kinda wanted to see this last weekend, but it was all rented out, along with The Good German. So I settled for City of the Lost Children and 3 Extremes.

Tim King said...

I just saw this today. Being pretty unfamiliar with Hartley's work, I have to admit, I don't get the humor. For example, yes, the plot was unbelievably complex, and with a host of unknown characters that affected the plot in major ways. But does that make it a parody? Or does that just make it stupid? Maybe it depends on how you look at it.

It's difficult to do something like this without confusing the ridiculous with the sublime. And I'm not convinced he successfully did so. But I enjoyed the film enough, and it intrigued me enough, that I intend to watch it again.

-TimK

Kathryn said...

Part of what makes it cool is everything from Henry Fool. Simon's character (omfg, I LOVE that actor, Teknolust, what?!), for example, seems kind of lame if you didn't see him before.

I pretty much loved it, but I have great unceasing affection for Jeff Goldblum. Although...so do a lot people, I suppose.

Mad Dog said...

You wouldn't say that if you saw Man of the Year.

Please don't see Man of the Year.

Kathryn said...

Also.

John. Have! You! Seen! TEKNOLUST!?!?!?!?!?!

The multiple "copies" dancing is totally the most awesome thing...ever.

Back to Fay Grim: I also wanted to point out that Hartley humor does not appeal to a lot people (he is not one for my dad or sister...hehe), and also that sometimes it doesn't even work for you if you DO like it. (Hence his long slump. DAMN YOU, "NO SUCH THING")

Walrus said...

First, I must warn that Katie's enthusiasm for "Teknolust" is not held by everyone. It has so much 90's kitsch that it can be hard to take and the comedy is a mix of intentional (1/10) and unintentional (9/10).

Tim,
I think with comedy, subjectivity is always a big part. My own sense of what is funny is horrbily mangled, equivalent to mainstream sensibilities after a swan-related car accident and a jaded youth. Sometime I'll post a more specific criteria about how I judge comedy.

As for "Fay Grim," I interpret it as parody because I think we are encourage to. Fay's fish-out-of-water, doggedly unperturbed performance and the mere casting of Goldblum would support that. Also, to the best of my knowledge/interpretation, all of Hartley's films are comedies. I think Hartley leaves it open to a possible serious reception but it certainly works a lot less as pure thriller/action.

Mad Dog said...

I'm not even sure how I would go about procuring it. I've never seen it anywhere.

Also, Video Library's having a going out of business sale. They have some stuff in their "classics" section, most notably some Hitchcocks: Rebecca, Saboteur and The Wrong Man. Any worth getting for ~$10? Also, is Forbidden Games any good?