"Three and a half stars (R)
Hal Hartley is best known for his acclaimed 1998 film Henry Fool, which most of you likely haven’t seen. Fay Grim is a sequel to Henry Fool, but you don’t need to have seen it to appreciate this one. Fay Grim recently played at the Indianapolis International Film Festival, where I understand it was quite well-received. If you missed it, here’s another chance. The film is booked at Landmark’s Keystone Art Cinema for one week only.
Fay Grim is a curious production, a highly stylized tale of a woman on a quest, an international spy story combining an epic sweep with a down-to-earth mindset, a quirky drama with a deadpan sense of humor. The camera underscores the otherworldly tone by presenting many scenes from cockeyed angles, a technique familiar to fans of The Twilight Zone. And every so often, information is provided to the viewer in great big letters filling most of the screen.
I liked what I saw. The twisty spy story threw me a couple of times, but that was all right. I just kept focused on the lead characters and let Hartley take me where he wanted to go. Everything becomes clear towards the end, more or less.
The plot: Fay Grim (Parker Posey, reprising her role from Henry Fool) lives in a middle-class neighborhood in Queens with her 14-year-old son, Ned (Liam Aiken, who made his debut in Henry Fool). She gets by on royalty checks from her poet brother Simon (James Urbaniak, also from the original film), who is in prison for helping Fay’s husband Henry escape from the law. Fay dates Simon’s publisher, Angus James (Chuck Montgomery), who has milked the scandal for all it’s worth and is concerned that the luster is fading from Simon’s outlaw reputation.
Then CIA agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) shows up at Fay’s home and tells her that Henry is dead. Moreover, two volumes of his much-sought-after handwritten opus, Confessions, have been discovered in France. Fulbright wants Fay to go to France and help recover the manuscripts. She agrees, but only if Simon gets paroled. A deal is cut and Fay takes off for a trip into the bizarre world of international espionage. Saffron Burrows turns up later in the story and Thomas Jay Ryan reprises his role as Henry Fool, though I’m not saying how.
For me, the appeal of Fay Grim is the style and tone of the production, coupled with some fine casting choices. Parker Posey has a brittle quality that sometimes pays off grandly and sometimes is irritating as hell. She keeps it in check here and hits the right notes as a desperate, but determined wife and mother who is more capable than she looks. Jeff Goldblum does his usual shtick — fast-talking, mumbling and arcing his voice at odd times — but it works in this context. The rest of the players are fine, with young Liam Aikens (The Road to Perdition) offering a well-grounded performance as the teen son. That kid has a quality about him that will carry him far.
Fay Grim isn’t for everybody. God knows a lot of reviewers are slamming it. Not me, though. Hal Hartley has made a series of hit and miss movies, but Fay Grim is a winner.