Friday, August 21, 1998

Gross indecency transformed into potent art

Movie: Henry Fool

Posted on Fri, Aug 21, 1998 at 4:00 AM

****1/2
Our Rating: 4.50

The excesses of director/writer Hal Hartley's "Henry Fool" provide stiff competition for this summer's official gross-out hit, "There's Something About Mary." Unlike the Farrelly's sophomoric shenanigans, Hartley's gross indecency transcends realism to form potent art.

The downtrodden and quiet garbageman Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), who lives a bleak existence in New York with his depressed and agoraphobic mother (Maria Porter) and his nympho sister (indie-queen Parker Posey in another striking performance), could definitely stand some change in his life. Luckily Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) steps into his life to inhabit the shabby basement apartment below the Grim family's house.

Henry, an alcoholic ex-con who fancies himself a self-styled intellectual, plans to spend his time in the basement completing his tome, "My Confession." The book is written in volumes of cheap composition notebooks, which he is sure will rock the literary world when finally completed. Espousing the power of writing, Henry hands Simon a blank notebook and convinces him to begin writing as well.

And that's where Simon's life begins to change. Henry recognizes Simon's writing as poetry, and soon Simon's writing begins to click with the residents of the strange community that Hartley has assembled -- an Asian shopkeeper and his wife, a former thug turned right-wing political canvasser (nicely played by Kevin Corrigan), his girlfriend and her young daughter.

While high-school girls latch on to Simon's work, the board of education denounces it as "scatological rubbish." After Simon has his poem published on the Internet, an actual publishing offer comes through. But Simon already has an existing deal that depends on the publication of Henry's "My Confession."

Then Simon reads Henry's manuscript. Although the actual text of either composition is never divulged, it's apparent that Henry's work could only hamper, not enhance, Simon's deal. It is there that the debt and gratitude to a friend and mentor are severely tested.

Hartley somehow manages to bring poetic beauty to thoroughly unpleasant situations. After witnessing a couple having sex, Grim returns home and has a swig of stale milk. The camera settles on the curdled, spit-out milk as Simon heads for the store. Once there, Simon runs into the couple. When the girl exposes her posterior to show contempt towards Simon, he promptly showers her with vomit. The scene would be merely childish if not for Hartley's guiding hand.

Hartley addresses several themes throughout the film -- American culture, celebrity, isolation, and the right-wing movement -- but it is his depiction of friendship and redemption that elevates "Henry Fool" beyond mere gross-out status to one of the most thought-provoking cinematic experiences to hit the screen this summer.

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