Grim, Fey: Hal Hartley Goes Global
By Fernando F. Croce

It's no coincidence Fay Grim and The Good German have been released so near each other. Hal Hartley and Steven Soderbergh have trodden odd paths since their days as poster boys for American independent cinema in the early Nineties, and their newest doodles are remakes of The Third Man which incidentally pose the directors (or maybe their past successes) as their own elusive Harry Limes. Where Soderbergh has vanished in an oeuvre that no longer tells corrupt experimentalism from corrupt hackery (next stop -- Ocean's Thirteen), Hartley's lostness is the result of a distinctive vision that's gradually clotted into "offbeat" irrelevance. Accordingly, Fay Grim gropes madly for curlicues of relevance, venturing out of the Queens bubble where Hartley's characters dwell and finding that the world, from Paris to Berlin to Istanbul, is "a mess." How can it not be, when everybody is trapped in the auteur's precious tenor, with mega-arch dialogue dispensed by doofus-mannerists, choreographed sitting down, getting up, skulking, sitting down again, etc. Parker Posey is Fay Grim, first seen in church with a "How to Pray" booklet; her 14-year-old son Ned (Liam Aiken) has been suspended for bringing to class a handcranked porno gadget ("You're grounded, like, forever"), CIA agents (Jeff Goldblum and Leo Fitzpatrick) await her at home. It has been a decade since Henry Fool, when the eponymous mystery man shook the lives of Fay and her garbage-man bro Simon (James Urbaniak) with his boorish force and scandalous poetry. Hartley's belated sequel has Fay scrambling to find Henry's "confessions," which, originally revealed as a bunch of crap, are rewritten here as the axis of some wacky international spy plot.

So off Fay goes to Europe's perpetually slanted horizons, striding in long coats slit on the sides to show the stockings underneath. There are secret agents, action sequences shot as a series of smudged stills, and fellow quirk-machine Elina Lwensohn, experienced in delivering Hartley-speak in Romanian tones ("I have a sweet tooth, which of course is not good for the fear of a stewardess"). Much of the film's inscrutable clowning falls on the shoulders of Posey, herself an indie emblem from the past but one with a lunging-swooning pulse that transcends the film's leaden whimsy, setting her cell phone to vibrate and shoving it down her panties as Saffron Burrows gives her a call. The path leads to Henry Fool himself (again played by Thomas Jay Ryan, a kind of American Denis Lavant), who hides in a bunker with a wanted jihadist; the character is meant to embody brute force, but energy of any kind is so alien to the world Hartley has fastidiously woven that, by the time Henry at last appears, his true colors as a flyweight literary concept have become transparent, quashing the first film's whole trajectory. But then again, Fay Grim ultimately amounts to a perverse demolition job, imploding the edifice erected in Henry Fool for the sake of a few obscure gags. Maybe Henry Fool is Hartley himself, who sabotaged his own brush with fame ten years ago when he appeared to be at the cusp of a breakthrough and now makes No Such Thing and The Girl from Monday. Or maybe the unmooring happened earlier, when the director was blindsided by Godard's Hail Mary and set out to plagiarize it over and over. Nevertheless, Fay Grim shows Hartley shrinking even as he goes global.

*

Androids won't do, Hartley needs human vulnerability to pump air into attitudinizing vacuums. Posey does it in Fay Grim, Adrienne Shelly did in Hartley's first films; her role as his first muse inevitably informs her directorial work, and a frontal shot early in Waitress of Keri Russell centered in the frame to strains of opera echoes the opening of Trust. Shelly's touch is warmer but just as stylized, setting conversations like cracked ping-pong matches and looking for sudden epiphanies in wide-eyed compositions. Russell, a small-town "pie genius" married miserably to a brute (Jeremy Sisto), goes to the obstetrician (Nathan Fillion) with pastry in hand for the bad news: "Un-congratulations, you're having a baby." "Un-thank you." Abortion is not even uttered, so the turmoil of waiting for the "parasite" in her belly gets channeled in recipes, zanily christened ("Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie," say) and produced in sped-up overhead shots. The movie's stage is the diner where Russell's pals (including iron-jawed Cheryl Hines, plus Shelly herself as a mouse in specs) work and "scaly old gator" Andy Griffith holds court; its center is a zoom into the heroine's gape-mouthed daze as it is transformed into grinning ecstasy, courtesy of a bit of extramarital boinking. Allergic as I am to quirkiness, I was won over -- by a sensitivity to feminine wavelengths that shames the phoniness of Because I Said So or Georgia Rule, and by Russell's freshness and Fillion's quizzical courtliness. The precarious seeds of personal vision here make Shelly's death last year doubly tragic.

*

Zombie films remain the final refuge of radicalized political filmmaking. There is an edge to the genre that no hack can degrade, a transgressive resonance which survives even Rodriguez's hollow mimicry of Romero tropes in his Grindhouse segment. 28 Days Later was released too soon after the start of the Iraq War for its fury to reflect much beyond Danny Boyle's twitchy nihilism; 28 Weeks Later, by contrast, explicitly envisions Britain as a deserted combat zone, "protected" by American military forces who eventually can't tell "normal" from "infected." Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's sequel opens in the darkness, a group of survivors from the original's stream of contamination holed up in a house, then peaks early with a hair-rising vision, the green British countryside overrun with red-eyed crazies. Quarantine, cleansing, regeneration: the menace seemingly controlled, the nation sets out to start anew with whatever populace is still living, including Robert Carlyle and his children, Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton ("the youngest person in the country," shades of Children of Men). The kids sneak out and carouse through the decimated city, looking for a picture of their supposedly dead mum (Catherine McCormack) and instead finding her, still very much alive yet lethally pestilent; the horrors begin with a marital reunion (Carlyle kissing the woman he'd left behind and receiving her virus), culminate with the bombing of the streets ("Shoot everything! We've lost control!"), and end with the darkness expanding beyond the white cliffs of Dover. I would be looking forward to 28 Months Later, if the world weren't already experiencing it.

*

There's little to say about Shrek the Third, other than its rethinking on fairy-tales has become less interesting and more retrograde than the ones in Hoodwinked and even Happily N'Ever After. Computer-animated ugliness notwithstanding, the franchise's major offense from the very beginning was pretending to question the paternalistic ideologies behind Disney fables while really reinforcing them, a strategy that the tired third installment no longer bothers to camouflage. Shrek (the fatigue in Mike Myers's Scottish brogue is palpable) is now a big, green, nervous daddy-to-be, hoping to ditch the responsibilities of Far Far Away's throne by getting a high school geek as the heir while Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) tends to the home -- kind of Father's Little Dividend with a hint of John Hughes (way to keep it edgy, guys), plus oodles of fart and barf jokes. Amid the many eyesores in Chris Miller's film is a spurious feminist sop in the shape of a group of princesses voiced by a variety of SNL gals, having my favorite character (Antonio Banderas's Puss in Boots) magically switch bodies with Eddie Murphy's witless Donkey, and the least welcome toon addition (Justin Timberlake's whiny Artie) since Poochie joined the Itchy & Scratchy Show. Enough with them, bring on Paprika already.


Reviewed May 24, 2007.

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