Henry Poole Is Here

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Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- Hollywood's flirtation with Christian filmgoers blossoms to a full-blown romance in Mark Pellington's "Henry Poole Is Here," a religious fable about man, lost in despair and anger, discovering the healing power of hope. Pellington and writer Albert Torres wisely leaven the earnestness of their story with wry humor, and the acting with one key exception is outstanding. The film will probably divide viewers along party lines: Either you believe in miracles -- in the Catholic sense -- or you do not.

Sensing a growing audience for such films, Overture is closing in on a deal for "Henry Poole." With the right marketing, the film could do well in many regions, in and out of the Bible Belt, and possibly cross over to nonreligious audiences who will appreciate the Capra-esque touches.

Luke Wilson plays Henry, a deeply depressed man who means to isolate himself from the world. He buys a dreary house in a Los Angeles suburb, stocks up on alcohol and stares into space. But the world, in the form of busybody neighbors, comes knocking anyway.

First, it's the devout Esperanza ("Babel's" Adriana Barraza) with a welcome wagon of tamales and more curiosity than Henry can tolerate. Later, he catches a sweet 8-year-old girl next door, Millie (Morgan Lily), tape recording his private conversations. Only she herself will not speak -- a condition Henry can appreciate.

Millie's mom, Dawn (Radha Mitchell), is a knockout and right next door too, but you sense Henry's desire to resist even the most basic social urges.

Then fate intervenes. A bad stucco job before he moved in has left a water stain on an exterior wall in his backyard. An astonished Esperanza declares she sees the face of Jesus in that stain. No matter how fiercely Henry resists Esperanza, his backyard gets turned into a "holy site" as her priest (George Lopez), fellow parishioners and the curious pay visits.

Henry vigorously whitewashes the wall with bleach, but the face grows clearer. Then a stigmata appears on the face. A nearly blind supermarket clerk (Rachel Seiferth), who in Henry's mind already has been overly solicitous about his emotional health, touches the wall and her vision is restored.

What ails Henry, which the movie hints at all along, is that he suffers from a rare and fatal disease. He has come back to his old neighborhood to die. It's a neighborhood of mostly bad memories, but the film, quite rightly, doesn't burden the story with any more of his past than this. Instead, the movie sticks with the here and now of a man who wants to be a recluse but can't keep mobs of people from bringing the message of Hope and Miracles to his door.

The movie is a little static at times. It seldom leaves the neighborhood, and the story progresses only in small degrees through these incidents. Overall, the film lacks dramatic heft.

Barraza is remarkable in that she brings pathos and kindness to a role that in lesser hands would be a nuisance. Mitchell is warm and caring as a mother in distress over the trauma her daughter has suffered since her daddy deserted the family.

Two newcomers are fabulous: Seiferth is funny, touching and sincere as the store clerk. Young Lily not only is a beautiful child but also has the poise and line deliveries of a veteran. Prediction: You will see and hear from these two in the future.

Which leaves Wilson. Granted, he is playing a sad sack. But an actor has to make that interesting. Wilson fails in this. The biggest hole in this picture is not so much whether an audience will buy its miracles but whether an audience will care about Henry Poole. Wilson hits the same notes in virtually every scene without any change to his physical rhythms or moods.

Pellington might want to consider a few trims, removing unnecessary scenes and tightening others to quicken the pace. Tech credits are mostly smooth, especially Eric Schmidt's mobile camera, working overtime to find new angles at the same location, and John Frizzell's easy-listening music that blends well with soft rock standards.

HENRY POOLE IS HERE
Camelot Pictures/Lakeshore Entertainment
Credits:
Director: Mark Pellington
Screenwriter: Albert Torres
Producers: Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Richard Wright, Gary Gilbert, Tom Lassally
Director of photography: Eric Schmidt
Production designer: Richard Hoover
Music: John Frizzell
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Editor: Lisa Churgin
Cast:
Henry Poole: Luke Wilson
Dawn Stupek: Radha Mitchell
Esperanza: Adriana Barraza
Father Salazar: George Lopez
Millie: Morgan Lily
Realtor: Cheryl Hines
Patience: Rachel Seiferth
Doctor: Richard Benjamin
Running time -- 100 minutes
No MPAA rating
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