In a world where fuming fans of James Bond can rant for hours about the pros and cons of Connery versus Dalton, Brosnan against Lazenby, it's quite amusing to watch a film like Fay Grim so casually upend everything that's beloved about the genre of spy films. Espionage isn't so much a plot device in writer/director Hal Hartley's sly dramedy as it is another wrench in the plans of the slightly ditzy, seemingly indefatigable Fay (Parker Posey). It's no faint praise (or critical hyperbole) to suggest that without Posey's keenly alive performance, Fay Grim would fall flat on its face.
It arrives a decade after Hartley's acclaimed and beloved Henry Fool, in which all manner of outre and audacious things happen to an unassuming clutch of Brooklynites, spurred on by the suave, if talentless, Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan, who reprises his role here). Fay's brother, the meek garbage man Simon (James Urbaniak, who also returns), saw his creative powers unleashed by Henry's worldly mentorship. In this sequel, Simon's a world-renowned poet, Fay hasn't seen Henry in almost seven years and their son Ned (Liam Aiken) is turning into a chip off the old block. Layered over this domestic chaos is the spectre of the CIA, personified by Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum, typically droll); the government, as it turns out, is quite eager to get their hands on Henry's eight volumes of "confessions."
To reveal any more would spoil the elegant twists Hartley's constructed -- suffice to say that the writer/director took what seemed to be a self-contained film (1997's Henry Fool) and created an entire universe to be explored. Those unfamiliar with the earlier film may not find Fay Grim as fascinating, but for those who reveled in Hartley's first foray into the world of the puerile, poetic enigma known as Henry Fool, there's much to enjoy here. Rapid-fire dialogue, Dutch angles and an odd sense of paranoia suffuse nearly every frame of Fay Grim, nodding in the direction of such diverse films as The Third Man or even the Paul Greengrass-directed Bourne series -- it's not much of a reach to suggest that Hartley is subtly distilling a half century of spy films down to this sweet, slightly goofy portrait of a woman swept up into a world she doesn't really understand (or want to). With tongue firmly in cheek, Hartley lets the narrative go slack in places (he could've easily lost about 20 minutes with no real damage), but keeps things moderately interesting throughout, doing justice to this film's predecessor.
Released as part of Magnolia Pictures' ongoing bid to have films available day-and-date on multiple platforms (broadcast, theatrical and DVD), Fay Grim is the perfect type of film to benefit from this multi-pronged approach. It's a knowing, archly constructed homage to and gentle mockery of the white-knuckle world of spies; Parker Posey delivers one of the best pieces of acting in her eclectic career, rendering Fay as a sympathetic, near-flesh-and-blood character. It's not a masterpiece by any stretch, but for those who don't need everything spoon-fed to them, blockbuster style, it's a film worth seeking out all the same. The DVD
Filmed on high-def video and transferred to 35mm, Fay Grim looks pretty sharp in this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. There are moments of fleeting softness and the occasional glimpse of an overly "digital" look, that yet-to-be-tackled HD bugaboo that gives otherwise filmic images a fleeting look of video grain. For the most part, it's a clean, problem-free presentation. The Audio:
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack isn't the sharpest, however -- I found myself cranking the volume a considerable bit above normal just to hear the hushed, rapid dialogue. Even during more intense sequences with score and sound effects layered in, it was still difficult to clearly hear what the characters were saying. Of course, there are no optional English subtitles (only Spanish) so you're stuck either missing bits of plot or enduring loud stretches of movie. The Extras:
The extras aren't definitive, by any stretch, but better to have something than nothing: A 27 minute, 52 second Fay Grim-centric episode of HDNet's "Higher Definition," hosted by Dallas Observer film critic Robert Wilonsky, is included and offered in anamorphic widescreen. It includes interviews with all of the film's primary cast and Hartley. The 16 minute, 38 second featurette "Making of 'Fay Grim'," is presented in fullscreen and feels a little redundant alongside the episode of "Higher Definition." A scant minute and 32 seconds of deleted scenes are presented in fullscreen, as is Hartley's impressionistic trailer for the film. Final Thoughts:
Fay Grim is a sly, archly constructed homage to and gentle mockery of the white-knuckle world of spies; Parker Posey delivers one of the best pieces of acting in her eclectic career, rendering Fay as a sympathetic, near-flesh-and-blood character. It's not a masterpiece by any stretch, but for those who don't need everything spoon-fed to them, blockbuster style, it's a film worth seeking out all the same. Recommended.