Long story short: In 1997, Hal Hartley made Henry Fool, a weirdly satisfying story about a garbage man, Simon Grim, who becomes a famous poet when he meets, and gets encouragement from, a mysterious drifter, a crude irascible cur who "gravitates to the lowest common denominator on principle," and who's writing a grandly awful eight-volume book about himself that he calls his Confession.
We never heard a word of Henry's opus -- we took it on faith that it was bad -- and in fact, we didn't need to: Hartley's movie eviscerated all aspects of what we like to call (without qualifiers) culture, including art films like his.
Enter Fay Grim, Hartley's follow-up to Henry Fool, in which he takes on the Hollywood sequel -- that is, the detritus of pop culture. Fay -- then and now, played by Parker Posey -- was Simon's sister and Henry's eventual wife. Their son is a grown-up 14, newly expelled from school for getting blowjobs at recess, and Henry is gone and dead (in that order), his "Confession" long missing.
Except that Simon's publisher sends Simon (now in prison -- long story) the missing part six of the Confession, and a CIA agent (Jeff Goldblum) wants the rest of it because, apparently, France has a scheme to use the Confession to blackmail the United States (long story involving drug smugglers, Afghani jihadists, Israeli freedom fighters, and Henry's role in overthrowing a South American government because, the CIA agent says, it was "inappropriate to the needs of the American economy").
Fay Grim repeats most of the thematic jokes that Hartley told in Henry Fool and adds a lot of new ones familiar to spy-thriller send-ups. Publishers are still greedy bastards with no taste ("anything capable of being sold is worth publishing"); Fay is still a neurotic, whiny mess; and Henry's work is still filled with, as Simon (James Urbaniak) deadpans, "masturbatory self-indulgence, egomaniacal rants, paranoid obsessions and sexual preoccupations."
As it turns out, Henry wrote his Confession in a coded language that requires Paradise Lost to unpack it. His son, a computer whiz (what kid isn't nowadays?), devises a program to compare the texts. Meanwhile, Fay traipses around Europe following Henry's trail, keeping in touch with her shadowy contact on a cell phone (more new ubiquitous technology since Henry Fool) that she puts on vibrate and stores -- for a joke almost beneath Hartley -- in her panties.
Is this all ingenious black comedy, or is it just silly? Hartley has dissected the past decade, and his earlier film that satirizes high art, and spun into a new riff satirizing espionage cinema, popular culture, the politics of money, and the post-9/11 world. He's always made films with a wink, but this one threatens eye strain. There's a running gag about an old-fashioned hand-cranked novelty device that shows pornographic movies, with some foreign words -- obscured by a goat -- in the background of the orgy. These words might hold a clue to Henry's fate. Are they Latin? Ask a priest to yank the crank. Or Hebrew? Find a rabbi. Or maybe Arabic? Consult an imam. All of them feign discomfort with the foreground content.
Hartley photographs the whole of Fay Grim with his camera tilted about 45 degrees, a device used for occasional effect in thrillers. He slathers on the absurdities, and he directs most of his actors to sardonic-cum-wooden performances, except for Goldblum, who's too naturally animated -- and too experienced a Hollywood actor -- to play along. Posey is especially trying: She probably shouldn't exist, let alone be an actress, and she's much more palatable supporting a cast than leading one.
It's all fun for a while, with a guffaw-line every few minutes or so, although it never really feels like much more than an intellectual exercise. In any other film -- say, the next Bourne adventure -- we'd nod our heads in somber, hollow recognition at a line like: "Why is it that when someone says 'civilization' I hear the sound of machine guns?" But when Fay says it, she sounds like a doll whose string someone just pulled in a Hal Hartley movie. Fay Grim is certainly something to think about, courtesy of a filmmaker who still doesn't care what people think.
Starts Mon., May 21, through Thu., May 24.