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Hal Hartley's Fay Grim and Luke Wilson's The Wendell Baker Story (co-directed with brother Andrew) make a prime pair of shaggy dogs. Each of these character-driven comedies is named after its lovably "innocent" protagonist and both are nostalgic for the Hollywood New Wave of the '70s, susceptible to unearned drollery, and prone to hit-or-miss wackiness. Where Fay Grim's arch one-liners seem intended to raise a quizzical eyebrow, Wendell Baker goes for the goofy, slack-jawed guffaw. What's truly disarming, however, is that as fond as they are of their own quirks, and as inured as they seem to conventional narrative rhythms, neither of these movies could even have fallen off the Hollywood assembly line.
Hard to remember, but back in the early 1990s, Hartley was regarded as the hot, young avant Amerindie, and following critically acclaimed festival hits like Trust (1990) and Simple Men (1992), 1997's Henry Fool, a seriously frivolous allegory on art, fame, fate, and the power of the Internet, was hailed as his breakthrough. "The affectless precision of Hal Hartley's previous work is absolutely no preparation for the brilliance and deep resonance of his Henry Fool. Here is a great American film," Janet Maslin proclaimed in The New York Times, complete with comparison to Nashville.
Such effusive over-praise must have cast a negative spell. Hartley's career promptly stumbled, and as Henry Fool's belated sequel, Fay Grim seems nearly an act of desperation. Three of the principals returnthe Queens sanitation man turned poet Simon Grim (professionally affectless James Urbaniak), his sister Fay (Parker Posey), and, briefly, the saturnine mystery tramp who changed their life, Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan). A decade has passed, and Fay fears that her 14-year-old son will grow up to be like his vanished and extravagantly disreputable father, Henryor is that Hartley's hope for the movie?
Actually, Fay Grim is the Parker Posey show. Her chiseled nose and down-turned mouth a priori edgy, Posey cuts a naturally cartoonish figure and, as demonstrated most recently by her broad turn as Lex Luthor's moll in Superman Returns (something of a shaggy-dog blockbuster), she can play physical comedy. As an actress, her allegiance belongs less to her character than her look, but she's so distinctive a presence that she has the effect here of naturalizing the normally ungainly Jeff Goldblum, who appears, with unexpected gravitas, as a duplicitous spook.
The CIA comes to Queens. Not lacking for ambition, Fay Grim adds a topical, national-security subtext to Henry Fool's more romantic concerns for the power of art and the mystery of artistic creation: The MacGuffin is a series of confessional notebooks that Henry may have written in a code that, although seemingly inspired by the French primitive surrealist Raymond Roussel, amounts to a secret, highly damning history of the Reagan Era. The stakes have been raised: Where literature rocked individual worlds in Henry Fool, here it bids to rock the World.
Sometimes, in cryptography, the truth hides in plain sight: Fay Grim's two-word title perfectly evokes the two poles of the filmmaker's whimsical yet leaden sensibility. The initial mode is fey. Transposed from Woodside to Paris in search of the notebooks, Posey looks smashing in a fitted town-coat ensemble so swanky that Hartley feels obliged to write an explanation for how she got it. (An ingenue no more, Posey channels her inner fashion model.) Intrigue swirls around her slit skirts, some of it in the form of Elina Löwensohnanother underappreciated, eccentric performer, here dressed in vintage Madonna cast-offs. For perhaps 40 minutes, Fay Grim actually sort of works as a comic thriller, albeit more amusing than funny. All manner of agents are in pursuit of Henry's notebooks. "The Russians extorted them from the North Koreans," one tells Fay. Hartley underscores and undercuts this conspiratorial nonsense with a bit of background tooting. (The film's music, as usual, is his own.) Then things change.
With all manner of backstories and flashbacks jamming the road, the Posey-mobile starts to swerve and sputter and finally blows a tire (in Istanbul no less). For all the tonal shifts, Hartley's stylea matter of tense line readings, emphatically tilted compositions, and select running gagsremains grimly determined. But it's precisely when Fay Grim strains for the big narrative revelation that it seems least con- sequential. Would that Hartley let shaggy dogs lie.
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