“An honest man is always in trouble, remember that Simon.”
Hal Hartley is a name I’ve known for a long time. Well, at least, I think I’ve know his name for a long time. And I think I’ve always associated it with a certain kind of independent, art house American cinema. But maybe I haven’t known his name all that long, because I had never actually seen a Hal Hartley movie until now. He’s made over a dozen features since the late 80s, none of them hits. But you don’t get to make that many movies without either hits, or building a reputation as a true artist. That’s a lot of assuming on my part, I know. But I’m hoping those assumptions prove true by watching Henry Fool.
Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) is a garbage man, and he’s about as satisfied with his lot in life as you’d expect a garbage man to be. He supports his sister and mother, the former (Parker Posey as Fay) staying at home to look after the latter. One day, the bombastic Henry Fool (Thomas Ray Ryan) arrives and begins renting their basement apartment. A self described genius writer, Henry has never had anything published, but has been working his masterpiece, something he calls his Confessions, for years.
Henry gives Simon a blank notebook, encouraging him to fill it with his thoughts whenever he feels like he has something he needs to get off his chest. Soon, Simon begins writing an epic poem. Reactions vary from inspiring a mute girl to sing, to the local schoolboard condemning Simon’s work as pornography. And while Henry’s brags and specific self aggrandising claims are obviously bullshit, it’s undeniable that he inspires those around him. Just not always pointing them in the healthiest direction.
Henry Fool is a movie that should be hard to like, because it’s characters are people that should be hard to like. Henry is liar and con man and so full of shit because he’s so insecure. Simon is almost pitiful in his defeatist view of the world. Even when his writing starts to take off, he’s really passive and lets most people just have their way with him. And Fay is generally some variety of overbearing, or demanding, or a combination of both. Yet, for all of that, Henry Fool makes you care about all of them and wish for them to find some sort of happiness and fulfillment.
Everyone in this movie is so heightened, that those negatives somehow make them work as relatable characters. And that only world because the world they’re in is also so heightened. After all, in the world of Henry Fool, it’s possible for a modern day poet to become rich and famous. Ridiculous and tragic characters like this need a world where some as ridiculous as rich and famous poets exist.