Writer/director Hal Hartley represented the future of American independent filmmaking in the 1990s. His films were bright, dry essays on life, love, and remorse, informed by a low-tech hunger that made at least a few of them completely irresistible ("Trust," "Simple Men," and "Amateur"). He was the best at dissecting stilted cinema with a flavorful sense of humor, but Hartley lost his touch when the clock struck the year 2000.
When the rambling, highly sought journals of Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) are found to be at the center of an international terrorist movement, the US government calls in his estranged wife Fay Grim (Parker Posey) for help. A confused women of limited means, Fay is pushed into undercover work by a federal agent (Jeff Goldblum) who sends her around the globe dodging bullets, meeting with spies (Elina Lowensohn, Saffron Burrows), and imploring her beloved poet brother Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) to help solve the mystery.
"Fay Grim" doesn't come across as a desperate ploy by Hartley to retain his old spitfire, but it's hard to consider this sequel to 1997's "Henry Fool" as anything but a stab at energizing his creative batteries again by tinkering with the past. "Fool" represented the last time Hartley assembled a piece of work with any lasting merit, even when it failed to glow next to the other diamonds in his filmography. It was the closest the director ever came to corralling an epic, and even when the sheer claustrophobia of the film threatened to shut the whole endeavor down, it still retained enough of the Hartley spunk to get by.
"Grim" is a story for a new age. There is some twinge of amusement in watching Hartley take a basement-centric film like "Fool" and unfold it on the international stage. Updating his characters to dance with guns, globetrot on a budget, and struggle with the central mystery, "Grim" is tonally ambitious, even more so than "Fool," and lets Hartley air his playfulness; a side of his personality that he's smothered for the last 10 years with an excess of artsy-fartsy, snoozy filmmaking endeavors that have destroyed his career.
However, the fun doesn't last for long. "Grim" opens with wild intentions, putting Fay in the center of an espionage maelstrom, with every border seemingly wanting a piece of the women to get to Henry. Hartley plays up the satiric themes with glee in the early going, pushing the cast to embrace the eccentricities of the script and basting the whole endeavor in a type of "permo-noir" by having cinematographer Sarah Cawley capture the film with an everlasting dutch angle. It is admittedly quite entertaining to watch "Grim" vault from scene to scene toying with thriller conventions, but let's be real here; there's no way anyone could keep this production on task for long.
Clocking in at two hours, "Grim" starts to tucker out at the halfway mark. Hartley continues to emphasize the ludicrousness of the subplots, but his sense of humor begins to fade as the ambiguity develops. What were once short bursts of satire and irony turn to elongated stabs at international affairs, including mid-east terrorism. The cast sells as much of this as they can and Hartley's HD camerawork is playful enough, but once the story begins to head down dark tunnels of relationship woe and revelation, "Grim" starts to live up to its title all too well.
"Grim" doesn't just get serious, it runs out of gas. The ultimate reveal of Henry's whereabouts is delivered with a droning edge that bleeds the film of tension and purpose, robbing "Grim" of the electricity that Hartley's been promising all along. The picture overstays its welcome to a rather disconcerting extent, and by the time the climax has arrived, I'm positive most viewers will have already mentally checked out of the film.
"Fay Grim" is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio). This is a stagy film, kept purposefully drab to accentuate the noir overtones. The DVD does an adequate job keeping the image in line with Hartley's intentions. This is not a visually lavish motion picture and the HD images can't always be counted on for sharpness, but "Grim" still holds steady as a reasonable DVD presentation.
With a Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix, "Grim" blends a mixture of score and dialogue to a pleasing degree. This is Hartley after all and his frantic-but-mannered spoken word is given a clean presentation on the DVD. The film's sound design is unadventurous and the score can be intrusive at select times, but "Grim" still retains a balance that makes for a satisfying sit.
Seeing how past Hartley DVDs have been bare-bones releases, it comes as a mild shock to see "Fay Grim" bestowed with limited, but surprisingly supplements.
My old pal Robert Wilonsky returns with a 27-minute-long episode of his "Higher Definition" interview show. For "Fay Grim," the affected film critic is unleashed on Hartley, Posey, Goldblum, Ryan, Lowensohn, and Burrows. Unlike his "Diggers" interview, Wilonsky seems more prepared this time around and gets the cast to open up out their experiences working on "Grim." He scores extra points for getting Hartley to expand on his "Star Wars" influences in creating "Grim."
Still, Wilonsky really needs to rethink his opening titles. Perhaps he lost a bet with Mark Cuban and is forced to look unspeakably goofy. All that seems to be missing are a few well-placed karate chops.
"The Making of 'Fay Grim'" is a short (16 minutes) featurette on the creation of Hartley's film. It's your standard promotional piece, complete with interviews (some with terrible audio) and behind-the-scenes footage.
Deleted scenes are included, but only 90 seconds worth.
Finally, a theatrical trailer completes the DVD.
"Fay Grim" does inch Hartley back to his glory days, but perhaps that's setting the filmmaker up for a failure he doesn't deserve. Swimming around the movie scene in recent years, Hartley has fumbled his mojo by chasing abstract ideas with even more abstract cinematography. "Grim" feels more like a filmmaker who is trying to screw up his courage again by tracing his previous efforts. The picture is a misfire, but not a crash, and signals a newfound desire on Hartley's part to return to his roots and explore how he used to conduct business.