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Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) is a loser. He's a sanitation worker who still lives at home with his mother (Maria Porter) and sister Fay (Parker Posey). Lonely and inadequate, his life is turned upside down by the arrival of Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a drifter with a mysterious past who rents a room in the house. Henry is everything Simon is not - confident, charming, well-read and engaging. At Henry's urging, Simon puts pen to paper and in the course of one night, pours his soul into three large notebooks; filling them with iambic pentameter. Henry is so thrilled by the huge "poem", he sets about trying to have it published. At the same time, he is trying to bed Fay, and to have his own work (described as his "confession") published. Slowly, the truth about Henry emerges, and he has to confront his own inadequacies and the ghosts of his past.

"Henry Fool marks a real return to form for Hal Hartley after the vaguely disappointing Flirt. Back in the suburbia of The Unbelievable Truth, and Trust, he has created a parable for the end of the second millennium. Hartley has always had a keen eye for everyday absurdities; using them to delve into his deeper themes. In Henry Fool, he takes this observational approach further and does it more effectively than ever before. Like those earlier efforts, his characters are off-beat individuals whose lives are thrown out of kilter by the arrival of someone even more eccentric. But he also examines deeper issues here, including the nature of celebrity and the role of media. All this is achieved through his trademark witty dialogue delivered deadpan by the main characters. When Henry explains to Simon the meanings of "there", "their" and "they're" it's classic Hal, and one of many laugh-out-loud funny scenes. At nearly two and a half hours, Henry Fool gives Hartley the broad canvas he needs to paint an insightful picture of contemporary society, in the context of a story based (like most of his films) in themes of guilt, atonement and redemption. Many of his observations have resonance for us in Australia. For instance, one of the minor characters, speaking in support of a conservative politician, observes "He offers simple solutions to complex problems - and that's good enough for me". Talk about close to home! Thomas Jay Ryan (who bears a passing resemblance to previous Hartley regular Martin Donovan) is brilliant as the eponymous Henry. James Urbaniak gives a multi-layered performance as Simon and Maria Porter has some wonderful scenes as his mother. Parker Posey is also fine, but I got the feeling that Fay wasn't really a stretch for her. This is Hartley's bravest and arguably his best film to date. Its length and style may distance some viewers; but with Henry, Hal has struck gold - and it's no fool's gold."
David Edwards

"Ryan in the title role really makes this film work, giving it the luminosity of a shimmering salt lake whose surface appears to be water but isn’t . . . here I go doing metaphors in the first sentence. But Hartley’s film does that, its passion for words being one of its prime forces. This, of course, has great appeal for writers but it should also hold in thrall those movie lovers who get a hit out of good writing, strong and unusually vivid characterisations, where the complexities and contradictions of human nature grow like fast ivy. Ideas persevere here, and there are few tangible signposts, even in the ending."
Andrew L. Urban

"Hal Hartley is one of America's most iconoclastic filmmakers, and his latest film is certainly his most cerebral and involving to date. Certainly, it's an audacious work, a searing, detailed study of the power of friendship, art and what it is that makes us human. Despite its somewhat excessive length, Henry Fool is a film that chronicles the complex relationship between two distinct characters, both beautifully and painstakingly brought to life by writer/director Hartley, in a dense, meticulous screenplay, containing some of the most poetic dialogue one is likely to hear. Structured as a black comedy, Hartley's film changes gear intermittently to moments of savagery, poignancy and sheer intellect. It's not just Hartley that does wonders here, but his cast which is truly perfection. First and foremost, is Thomas Jay Ryan, a newcomer to film, having spent much of his time cultivating his art on stage. He is simply magnificent, evoking Henry's complex intellect with a beautiful resonance. He's matched by the eloquence of James Urbaniak, brilliant as the not-so-simple Simon. Perennial Indie favourite Parker Posey gives another sublime performance as Simon's tough, precocious sister. Nicely shot on location in New Jersey, Henry Fool is a work of complexity and emotional purity. It takes risks, stretching beyond the norm, so this film is not for everyone. But being Hartley, it doesn't try to be, and therein lies its greatness."
Paul Fischer

"A glum suburban allegory from independent auteur Hal Hartley, centred on two contrasting stereotypes of ‘the artist.’ Played to the hilt by stage actor Thomas Jay Ryan, Henry Fool (the character) is a raucous pseudo-visionary, cadging drinks and leering at girls in between blasts of windy rhetoric about art and life. Meanwhile his opposite number, meek and lowly Simon Grim, quietly labors away at works of pure, untaught genius. Since neither figure is remotely believable, things get tedious fairly quickly, given Hartley’s dragging pace, pause-ridden dialogue, and unvarying mode of dry, distanced humour. Henry and Simon may be parodies of cliches, but the fixation on art as a quasi-magical force is tiresome and coy. Simon’s never-glimpsed ‘great’ poem is a blank cheque, totally unreal except as a plot device; this obviously limits the film’s capacity to say anything serious about an artist’s relation to the world – as opposed to merely reminding us of Hartley’s own grandiose aspirations. While Simon’s writings are condemned as filthy pornography, his creator seems to be battling critics who’ve labelled him a bloodless, academic filmmaker. Confining most of the action to a single neighbourhood, Hartley takes the time to populate this rundown ‘burb with numerous thoughtfully drawn secondary characters. He also throws in some fashionable scenes of gross physical comedy (not this director’s strength) and other extravagantly sordid moments. But it all adds up to a kind of blank abstract satire that’s mostly uninvolving, if quite different from anything else around."
Jake Wilson

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CAST: Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey, Maria Porter, James Saito, Kevin Corrigan, Liam Aiken, Miho Nikaido, Gene Riffini, Nicholas Hope, Diana Ruppe, Veanne Cox, Jan Leslie Harding Chuck Montgomery

PRODUCERS: Hal Hartley

DIRECTOR: Hal Hartley

SCRIPT: Hal Hartley


EDITOR: Steve Hamilton

MUSIC: Hal Hartley (performed by Hartley, Jim Coleman)


RUNNING TIME: 141 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 19, 1998

VIDEO RELEASE: July 28, 1999


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