Compelling 'Fool' Review: 'Henry Fool' spins fascinating character study.

July 31, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Henry Fool is no fool, and more's the pity if you mistake him for one.

Henry Fool is a scoundrel, a poet, a thief, a revolutionary and an artiste. He's the sun around which an eclectic cast of characters spin, drawing both energy and inspiration. And he's the centerpiece of a film that offers one of the most compelling character studies of recent years.

The film starts off with its protagonist nowhere in sight. Instead, we're introduced to Simon Grim, who certainly is. A garbageman who's quiet and unassuming to the point of being mentally handicapped (his state of mind remains an issue throughout the film), his role in this world is to plod, struggling to support himself, his clinically depressed mother (Maria Porter) and his nymphomaniac sister (Parker Posey, predictably terrific).

Simon lives his life on the outside looking in -- we first see him watching a couple make love in an alleyway -- which is why he's woefully unprepared when Henry Fool shows up. His sudden appearance is never explained; neither is his decision to latch on to Simon, who has no idea what he's in for but goes along anyway.

Writer/director Hal Hartley doles out Henry's story in dribs and drabs. We suspect Henry's an intellectual because he's forever spouting philosophical drabble, because he prowls libraries and bookstores and because he's forever got a few days' growth on his chin. What we do learn is that he's a writer who's spent years working on his memoirs, his "Confessions."

Slowly, but inexorably, Henry pushes open the door to Simon's world, convincing the garbageman to write down his own thoughts. He does, and the pornographic ramblings become the hit of the publishing world.

But what, we constantly wonder, about Henry Fool and his "Confessions"? Who is this guy?

As Simon, James Urbaniak makes the near-comatose compelling no mean feat. With a pointedly expressionless face that somehow registers every imaginable emotion, Urbaniak plays Simon as a sort of Everyman; he's the artist inside all of us, the one we never let out for fear of being ridiculed.

It's a terrific performance, and it has to be to match Thomas Jay tTC Ryan, making an indelible, magnetic screen debut as Henry Fool. He's the artist who insists he doesn't care what people think, whose only mission is to remain true to his artistic muse. But he's also the artist who secretly cares so much what people think, he can't bear the thought of opening himself up to public scrutiny.

Hartley, who I suspect sees something of himself in Henry, tends to write dialogue that just keeps on going; his characters often don't talk, they declaim. Still, he knows just when to inject some humor into the proceedings, so things don't get too grim. He also peppers the film with some compellingly quirky secondary characters, including a political canvasser who can't understand why everyone's not as enthusiastic about his candidate as he is, a publisher who has no time for Simon until Simon doesn't need him anymore, and a priest who helps broker Simon's book deal.

'Henry Fool'

Starring Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak and Parker Posey

Directed by Hal Hartley

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Rated R (language, sexuality)

Running time: 138 minutes

Sun score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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