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Poetry in Motion

[whitespace] Henry Fool
Write Wing: Under the tutelage of a swaggering ex-con (Thomas Jay Ryan, right), geeky Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) shoots to literary fame in Hal Hartley's 'Henry Fool,' a meditation on media hype.

James Urbaniak talks about his role in Hal Hartley's brilliant 'Henry Fool'

By Michelle Goldberg

Hal Hartley's latest film, Henry Fool, is an astounding two-and-a-half-hour living-room epic about raw genius, macho bluster, blue-collar despair and second chances. It's Hartley's most topical film--commenting, among other things, on the Internet, right-wing censors and media hype. But while it's polemical, ironic and scatologically funny, it's also poignant, compassionate, even earnest. The idea of the brilliant young poet whose words can sear people's souls has been thoroughly degraded in recent years through the cult of the beatniks, poetry slams, Jewel's $1.75 million publishing deal and a host of other cultural misfortunes. Henry Fool dares to take the idea of the literary savant seriously, but the film's profundity never feels pretentious.

Henry Fool tells the story of Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), a silent, geeky garbage man who lives in Queens with his housebound mother (Maria Porter) and his slutty, abrasive sister, Fay (the fabulous Parker Posey). Simon's mother and sister assume he's retarded, and he's constantly menaced by the local crack-smoking Republican thug. His family's desperate, stale life is shaken up by their boarder, the eponymous Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan). Fool is a testosterone-drunk ex-con with a Hemingwayesque swagger and delusions of literary grandeur. He served seven years in prison after he was "caught in flagrante delicto screwing a 13-year-old girl named Susan." His life's work, he tells Simon, is his "confession," a multivolume memoir that he believes will "blow a hole this wide straight through the world's idea of itself."

Henry gives Simon a notebook and encourages him to write as well. The first time Simon puts pencil to paper, he scrawls dozens of pages of verse in iambic pentameter that make a mute girl sing and, after being posted online, catapult Simon into fame while driving educators and editors to denounce him as a pornographer (Camille Paglia appears in a cheeky cameo as one of Simon's defenders). Happily, we never hear the miracle poem, so it remains as a pure symbol of penetrating artistic genius--an idea that too many have written off as, if not passé, than at least no longer possible in our seen-everything world.

Visually, Henry Fool is Hartley's most sophisticated film, with characters framed against almost painterly backgrounds. The concerns are very much the same as in other Hartley movies--The Unbelievable Truth deals with an man making a new life as a mechanic after doing time for manslaughter, and in Amateur a sadistic porn producer gets a kind of absolution through amnesia. As if to underline his concern with redemption, Hartley throws in a doubting Catholic priest who becomes Simon's confidant. In Hartley films, characters always find themselves in situations that are so emotionally stark that day-to-day life stops mattering--almost like during a snowstorm or a tornado, when the real world is on hold and all you can do is have a drink and wait it out.

But while the themes are the same as in past Hartley films, the style--and especially the gross-out physical comedy--is a huge departure for the director. The characters in Henry Fool don't talk in the slightly stiff, thoughtful deadpan that Hartley is known for, perhaps because of the absence of the director's usual avatar, Martin Donovan, whose highly mannered way of speaking has become almost a Hartley signature.

The two stars, Urbaniak and Ryan, are both unknowns: Urbaniak has worked mostly on off-off-Broadway, and the film is Ryan's screen debut. "I talked to Hal about that before we started the film, about the so-called Hartley style, and he said, "I don't really think I have a style,' " says Urbaniak, in town for Henry Fool's premiere at the Dockers Film Festival. "He's very open to whatever the actors were throwing out. In this case it was necessary, especially for Tom, that he have a larger-than-life theatrical quality, a personality that you haven't really seen in Hartley films before. The tone and texture of this film are very different from Hartley's other movies."

Unlike any other Hartley film, Henry Fool has several brutish, gag-inducing moments--graphic puking and shitting--that occasionally threaten to stamp out the film's more subtle nuances. "The scatological things are really physical manifestations of what the characters are feeling," Urbaniak says. "Hal's just trying to find physical ways to represent that. [Simon's] in the depths of degradation in the beginning of the film, and him throwing up is an immediate and shockingly funny way to represent that. The scene where Henry's on the toilet, basically shitting his guts out, it's hilarious, but it's also more than that. Henry enters the film as a mythic figure. He comes over the hill almost as if Simon has summoned him. When he's on the toilet, you can't get much more human and vulnerable than that. It's not just there to shock. It's saying, yes, this guy is kind of larger than life, but he's subject to the thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to. Those scenes are metaphorical in addition to perhaps being sickening."

Though Ryan's character dominates each frame he's in, Urbaniak has, in many ways, the harder role, because Grim is utterly taciturn and unreadable even though he's the moral center of the movie. "It was tricky, because as an actor you want to perform and share your stuff, and I had to throw away a lot of my acting vocabulary for this part," Urbaniak says. "Hal wanted the character of Simon to be unreadable. I remember when I first read the script I thought this looks like a great part but it doesn't look like much fun."

Urbaniak suggests that there are hints of autobiography in Henry Fool. "Hal's a guy who, with his first film, got very acclaimed at the Toronto film festival. Suddenly he found himself in the spotlight. Part of what the film is talking about is the sort of hype that happens in America over something that seems to come from an unlikely place," Urbaniak says. But the hype that's greeted most of Hartley's films hardly seems excessive, especially given the praise lavished on contemporaries with a fraction of his talent, such as Kevin Smith and Tom DiCillo. In fact, it would be hard to overhype Henry Fool. The film deserves every bastardized adjective--brilliant, stunning, five-goddamn-stars--we can bestow on it.


Henry Fool (141 min; R.) directed and written by Hal Hartley, photographed by Michael Spiller and starring James Urbaniak, Thomas Jay Ryan and Parker Posey. Opens in San Francisco on July 1.

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From the June 29-July 12, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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