This review was written for the festival screening of "Fay Grim."
PARK CITY -- A story of literature, international intrigue and family loyalty, Hal Hartley's "Fay Grim" exists somewhere between the Marx Brothers and an espionage thriller. A sequel -- something rare in the indie world -- to his 1998 hit "Henry Fool," the film stars Parker Posey in the kind of strong and quirky role that has made her the darling of Sundance. This is definitely not a mainstream item, but it could attract an audience ready for something completely different.
A Hartley film is like an inside joke -- if you get it, it's funny; if not, you will probably come away scratching your head. His films are more about atmosphere, characters (usually eccentrics), snappy dialogue and outlandish plots. "Fay Grim" is no exception.
Since the first film eight years ago, Fay's idiot savant husband Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) has been on the lam from the law; her brother, Simon (James Urbaniak), a Nobel Prize-winning garbage man/poet from Woodside, Queens, N.Y., is incarcerated for helping Henry escape; and her 14-year-old son Ned (Liam Aiken) has been expelled from school for bringing in pornography.
It turns out that Henry's handwritten confessional filling seven or eight notebooks, the subject of the first film, is really encoded revelations he wrote for the CIA. Threatening to unhinge the balance of power in the world, the notebooks become the subject of an international hunt ranging from New York to Paris to Istanbul and thrust Fay into the midst of terrorist activity.
Hartley obviously loves the Grim family and uses them as a prism to look at some of the mayhem in the world today. When CIA agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) tricks Fay into going to Paris to retrieve Henry's papers, she learns quickly how to handle herself in dangerous situations. She is smart but unsophisticated -- a representative American -- and becomes the target for all sorts of feelings about the U.S. But much of the time, the characters seem more comical than threatening.
Among the people Fay encounters are a Russian flight attendant (Elina Lowensohn), who was Henry's lover, a beautiful British spy with a bum leg (Saffron Burrows) and a bumbling French operative (Harold Schrott). All roads lead to a real live Afghani terrorist (Anatole Taubman), Henry's best friend, who is keeping him in captivity, perhaps for his own good.
It doesn't all quite add up, and even Hartley admits there are some holes in the plot. He seems more interested in testing Fay in situations, watching her grow and teaching some life lessons along the way. Fortunately, Posey, who has worked with Hartley three times before, is an actress who can pull off this kind of material that borders on the absurd but has a deep reservoir of human emotion. In fact, the whole cast, headed by Goldblum, Urbaniak and Lowensohn, seems to be in on the joke.
Working in HD for the first time, Hartley brings some interesting off-kilter camera angles and stylistic touches to the film, like flashing words on the screen to spell out how Fay is putting ideas together in her head. On a small budget, cinematographer Sarah Cawley Cabiya makes international locations like the Bosphorous and Turkish streets look big.
"Fay Grim" is the kind of film you might not get at first (or ever), but the next morning you might find that something about it has embedded itself in your consciousness. That's Hartley's subversive sense of humor at work.
HDNet Films presents a Possible Films production in association with This Is That and Zero Fiction, with the support of Mediaboard Berlin Brandenburg
Screenwriter-director-editor: Hal Hartley
Producers: Hal Hartley, Michael S. Ryan, Martin Hagemann, Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente
Executive producers: Ted Hope, Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban
Director of photography: Sarah Cawley Cabiya
Production designer: Richard Sylvarnes
Costume designers: Anette Guther, Daniela Selig
Fay Grim: Parker Posey
Fulbright: Jeff Goldblum
Simon Grim: James Urbaniak
Juliet: Saffron Burrows
Ned Grim: Liam Aiken
Bebe: Elina Lowensohn
Carl Fogg: Leo Fitzpatrick
Angus James: Chuck Montgomery
Henry Fool: Thomas Jay Ryan
Running time -- 118 minutes
No MPAA rating