After the onslaught of political documentaries produced and released in the wake of the war in Iraq, the last place you’d expect to see possibly the most astute allegory about the U.S.‘s role in our current war is in America’s drollest, most deadpan comic indie director. But Hal Hartley’s delirious, delectable sequel to his 1998 triumph Henry Fool is exactly where you’ll find it. A sequel to a rather small independent film is practically unheard of as it is, so instead of a mere retread of that film’s more formal sensibilities, Hartley has made the follow-up a pure espionage yarn, but not to worry, there’s still plenty of the Hartley witticisms his fans always crave. This time, though, the story deepens and expands its colorful roster of pawns and players, and by the end you may experience a sensation that many have claimed as largely missing from the director’s vocabulary: poignancy.
As the film begins, we see what has become of Fay Grim (Parker Posey). After her beau Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) fled the authorities in the previous film, with poet brother Simon (James Urbaniak) locked up for aiding his disappearance, she now has a teenage son by Henry named Ned (Liam Aiken), who is a school troublemaker but curiously crafty, just like his old man. Still amusingly set in the workaday neighborhood of Woodside, Queens, Fay is muddling through, living on residual checks from Simon’s literary glory, and his wily agent (Chuck Montgomery, delightfully reprising his Henry Fool role) takes a liking to her. Soon, a mysterious kaleidoscope appears with no return address, sent to her son, which sets off an investigation of Fay by the authorities, chiefly C.I.A. agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) and assistant Fogg (Leo Fitzpatrick). Turns out Henry’s legendary notebooks are crucial to international wheeling and dealing. (“I just read the dirty parts,” claims Fay.) Simon is sprung from jail by the feds, in exchange for Fay’s travel cooperation overseas, where she learns Henry Fool is even more cryptic a man that she had ever thought.
But Fay Grim is no fool (literally, she cheekily keeps her maiden name), and as played by Parker Posey, is one marvelous creation. Posey is the most misused great actress in this country, and Fay Grim proves why. Except for her sharp turns in films as rangy as Personal Velocity to Superman Returns (and some not-bad stage work in there too), she is usually deployed as a sort of goth gargoyle, typically in crappy studio pictures, where they assume her gift for acidic, throwaway line readings suffices as character styling. Actually, she is an accomplished dramatic actress, and in Hartley’s masterful hands, gives Fay Grim the weight of someone truly iconic yet firmly down to earth, which is why the allegorical implications of Fay’s infiltration of other countries in the film becomes so specific. She is commonly maneuvered as the ultimate rook by nearly everyone in the film, yet through Posey’s endearing, desire-laden portrayal, she is by all accounts a real woman, walking through the blur that is our global universe, and as perplexed and unnerved by the actions of all of its participants as any critical-thinking human.
Thankfully, she is surrounded by top-tier co-stars here, with Urbaniak wonderfully reprising his title role in the last picture and the inspired addition of Goldblum, who is so naturally at ease in the Hartley lexicon one is amazed they have never collaborated before. And if Henry Fool had a flaw, it’s that Thomas Jay Ryan’s performance was maybe a little too charismatic at times (you often felt like he could devour Urbaniak or Posey at any given moment); here, brilliantly, he only rates an extended cameo, but everything you need from him is right there in his scenes, and all of his oily bravado mixed with inquisition and menace is completely palpable.
And the film also happens to be great fun, which is never something one would ever presume about a Hal Hartley movie. Never sacrificing its jaunty pleasures (displayed impressively in the superb HD lensing, with every scene at a slightly canted angle to reflect the off-center state of affairs), Hartley miraculously manages to make a grandly entertaining—and relevant—movie that never seems as if it’s being too cloying. In fact, the hipster pretension of many of Hartley’s contemporaries is nowhere to be found here. Sure, there’s a teasing layer of self-reflexivity here, but Hartley has his mind on our deeper senses. All one has to do is witness Fay’s final, fateful gaze in the film, in which Posey beautifully embodies bewilderment and melancholy, an all-too familiar set of variables for any red-blooded American trying to make heads or tails of this wacky world of ours.