‘Fay Grim’: more ‘Fool’ you, the viewer

Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim follows Parker Posey as the title character, a single mother who gets enmeshed in a labyrinthine, barely comprehensible international intrigue that takes her from Queens to Paris to Istanbul. The catalyst is a series of journals written by her husband Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), an itinerant bum and writer who fled the country at the end of Hartley’s earlier film Henry Fool (1998), and whom Fay hasn’t seen or heard from in the years since then.

It turns out that Henry’s journals are not the unreadable, unbearably pretentious memoirs everyone originally took them for. No, in fact they’re an encoded compendium of state secrets detailing decades’ worth of CIA skullduggery. Intelligence agencies all over the world are desperate to get their hands on the journals; each spy service is convinced the notebooks contain classified intel vitally relevant to them in particular.

The setup has promise. For a minute it seems like Hartley is setting up Henry as a Curveball figure, an informer who thrives, however briefly, by telling spy agencies exactly what they want to hear. Hence during her travels Fay is alternately approached, stalked and co-opted by agents from France and the Mossad, Islamic militants and terrorists, and above all by a CIA agent named Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum).

The storyline is intentionally impenetrable, the camera angles are skewed, and the tone is very wink-wink, playing at being a thriller. (If you cast Parker Posey as the heroine of your spy movie, clearly you aren’t aiming to outdo The Bourne Ultimatum.) At times Hartley seems to be drawing from Godard’s Made in U.S.A.: It’s as if he decided to take a handful of stylized, mock-melodramatic shots from that movie — wherein Anna Karina camps it up as a B-movie heroine while being pursued — and make them the basis for an entire feature. But riffing on a lesser-known Godard work doesn’t exactly lend Fay Grim added weight, or urgency; it just makes the movie’s air of self-indulgence more pronounced.

It doesn’t help that the opening scenes of Fay Grim are so weak, full of deadpan whimsy and a kind of arch, self-amused humor that has been my personal cinematic nemesis for decades now. (Memo to indie filmmakers: Don’t give your secondary characters cutesy names like “Herzog.” No one cares about your influences.)

Once Fay is persuaded to fly to Paris by Goldblum’s CIA man, the movie starts to work a lot better. The middle third is a passably amusing espionage spoof. The pacing is adept, the cinematic technique assured, and Posey is an engaging lead, cutting a chic figure in her ankle-length coat.

But whatever good will the film earns in its first hour or so evaporates in the laborious final stretch. I’m willing to accept any number of conceits, such as Fay, who appeared cowed by her son’s middle-school principal in the movie’s opening, suddenly being able to outwit the CIA and bargain with terrorists; what really sink Fay Grim are the ungainly shifts in tone and clumsy grasping for significance.

The nadir is a long, solemn talky scene between Henry Fool, finally making an appearance in the movie, and an Islamic militant, in which we learn their ties go back to Afghanistan in the ‘80s. Previously believed to be a wandering poet, Henry, it turns out, was actually some sort of international man of mystery on behalf of the CIA during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Throughout the movie, Hartley has resorted to the theatrical device of having other characters talk up Henry’s mystique, before finally carting out Henry late in the film. But nothing in Henry’s dialogue (or Ryan’s performance) suggests he was ever capable of masterminding all this deceit.

We’re also asked to believe that Fay, whom Henry abandoned nearly a decade ago, is suddenly willing to abandon her son and become a fugitive — for this guy? It makes Fay seem naïve, or just plain dumb. Her near-reconciliation with the shambling Henry has zero resonance. Hartley overplays his hand further with a high body count in the last few minutes that’s not only unearned, but tacky. Life is just as cheap here as it is on network TV dramas that need to provide viewers a jolt of violence before every commercial break.

A standard online gripe about Fay Grim is that it betrays the characters from Henry Fool. Henry is turned inside out, brought back for just a few minutes to serve a leadenly didactic purpose. Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) comes back mainly to deliver exposition and keep the plot moving along. (Despite being a poet who spent much of the last decade in jail, he too suddenly proves adept at outwitting the CIA and a host of other spy outfits.) Not having seen Henry Fool, I can’t say whether the first movie’s characters have been poorly used in this second go-round, but I’m certainly not inspired to find out.

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