“Henry Fool” is certainly Hal Hartley’s best movie—which isn’t saying much, as it might be his only good one. And so the notion of a sequel to it is fairly tempting. Unfortunately, “Fay Grim” shifts the focus away from the title character of its predecessor so completely that the connection between them barely registers. To make matters even worse, not only does its new centerpiece, Henry’s wife Fay (Parker Posey), prove a far less interesting character, but the complicated plot Hartley frames around her, involving international intrigue, is both opaque and tedious.
The picture takes up some years after the first one left off, with Henry’s flight from the country with the connivance of his brother-in-law Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), the garbage man turned poet at Fool’s encouragement. Henry’s left behind his wife Fay, who’s living off royalty checks from the jailed Simon’s books and trying to raise her trouble-raising high school son Ned (Liam Aiken), who’s just been expelled from campus for sharing with his fellow students a pornographic old slide box he’s received in the mail as a mysterious gift.
The plot kicks in when Simon’s agent Angus James (Chuck Montgomery) tells Fay that Henry’s lost journals would be a gold mine, and a CIA agent named Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) comes looking for them. What follows is a convoluted globe-hopping farrago that finds Fay going to France to get the books from the French government in return for Simon’s parole, while Simon, Angus and Ned try to assist her from home as she makes her way to Istanbul as well. Meanwhile Fulbright and agents from virtually every other major power get involved, along with a bewildering array of spies, confederates, Henry himself (Thomas Jay Ryan, in what amounts to a cameo) and an Afghan rebel leader who is keeping him on ice.
The latter circumstance arises from the fact that Henry’s so-called “Confessions” aren’t the literary masterpiece people hope, but a coded revelation of his previous life in the intelligence service, the publication of which could seriously embarrass people like Fulbright. Needless to say, in the ultimate resolution the real villains get their comeuppance while those they’ve sought to use for their own devices win out after a fashion, even if it’s a bittersweet one.
Maybe there’s something clever, poignant or incisive embedded in Hartley’s script, but if so he effectively buries it in a smog of narrative obfuscation, an irritatingly smart-alecky attitude and cinematography (by Sarah Cawley Cabiya) so enamoured of tilted compositions that you might come out with a sprained neck from trying to right them in viewing. And though Posey is the acknowledged darling of the indie crowd, her performance here is one long affectation, and Goldblum’s tired grumpy act is no better. As to the others, Ubaniak repeats his prosaic turn from the first picture, and Ryan can’t build up a full head of steam as a result of very limited screen time. On the other hand, Montgomery brings a nice bearded Robert Klein-ish tone to the publisher, and Aiken gives Ned, at least in the earlier going, a subtle touch of shiftiness that might, if continued, have made for some interesting business. Unfortunately, he quickly recedes into the undifferentiated background.
There’s always been a small coterie of Hal Hartley admirers out there, and though it’s gotten smaller over the years—the result of the deteriorating caliber of his films—a few remain. They’ll probably embrace “Fay Grim” as a return to form. It isn’t, as least if “Henry Fool” is your standard. But the real problem is that the form wasn’t ever all that great. Arch, annoyingly complicated and insufferably smug, this will appeal only to those for whom Hartley and Posey can do no wrong.