“You see? They have to bludgeon a man into obscurity before they’ll acknowledge his genius.”
When I finished watching Hal Hartley’s 1997 movie Henry Fool, I thought, “Henry Fool is a movie that should be hard to like, because its characters are people that should be hard to like… 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.” What I did not think was, jeez, I’d love to see these characters a decade later, mixed up in some spy thriller hijinks. I may not have known I wanted it, but Hartley gave it to me anyway, with Fay Grim.
Henry Fool ended with Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) giving the titular Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) paperwork to use Simon’s identity to flee America. Now, almost a decade later, Simon is in jail for aiding and abetting Henry’s escape. While Simon’s sister, Fay (Parker Posey) is raising the teenaged son (Liam Aiken as Ned) fathered by Henry. Simon is still a world famous, award winning poet, even if he has to write from behind bars. While his editor, Angus (Check Montgomery) thinks they can cash in on Simon’s incarceration by finding and publishing Henry’s epic novel and self proclaimed masterpiece, something he called his Confessions.
In Henry Fool, his Confessions were seen as self indulgent mess by anyone unlucky enough to read them. Now, not only does Angus want to find the notebooks to make a quick buck, but the CIA, personified by Jeff Goldblum as Agent Fulbright, are desperate to find the manuscript as well. It turns out, before the events of Henry Fool, Henry was a spy. And instead of being the incoherent ramblings everyone though them to be, his Confessions might actually be sensitive information that threatens national security. Now it’s time for Fay to head to France, under the watchful eye of the CIA, and retrieve the remaining notebooks of Henry’s tome.
While Henry Fool dealt with the small, personal issues of everyday people in their everyday neighbourhood, Fay Grim goes bigger in every way. International espionage isn’t exactly a setting for small character studies. Yet, Fay Grim is so much lighter than its predecessor. There’s a lot more literal life and death here, technically, there’s a lot more at stake. But for all that, Fay Grim is kind of fun and silly a lot of the time. While Henry Fool managed to remain as heavy as lead for its entire running time.
Henry Fool in no way hinted at being the first part of as decades spanning trilogy. But Fay Grim makes me really glad that it was. These two movies are so different in tone, style and execution, that while the second doesn’t really need to be a sequel to the first, I’m really glad it is. I’m glad Hartley decided to stay in the same world, but completely flip it upside down at the same time. There’s a degree of glamour and sexiness to this world, and to Posey’s character, that would never fit into Henry Fool. But somehow, once I was in the thick of it, Fay Grim seemed liked the perfect continuation of that world. I really can’t wait to see what weird direction Hartley took things when he brought these characters back another eight years later, for Ned Rifle.