The movies of Hal Hartley are an acquired taste that some of us have yet to acquire. Intelligent, offbeat, and independent-minded, Hartley operates outside the sludge of mainstream commercial filmmaking. But there is something desiccated about even his best movies, something freeze-dried at the core.
"Fay Grim," his latest, is a follow-up to "Henry Fool" (1998) – a rare example of a sequel to an independent movie. Fay (Parker Posey) is still a single mother residing in Woodside, Queens. She fears that her 14-year-old son Ned (Liam Aiken) will take after his father, Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), who in the first film became a fugitive from justice and has been missing for seven years. Fay's brother Simon (James Urbaniak) remains imprisoned for aiding Henry's escape abroad a decade earlier.
The dire consequences of the printed word are essential to Hartley's films (which also include "No Such Thing"). In "Henry Fool," Fay posted Simon's difficult, incendiary poetry on the Web and he ended up winning a Nobel prize. In "Fay Grim," Henry's so-called "Confessions," a series of seemingly incoherent ramblings, are suspected by Simon of being the works of an encoded spymaster.
It's no surprise, then, that CIA agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) soon appears on the scene. He asks Fay to travel to Paris to retrieve the notebooks – what follows is a cat-and-mouse game of espionage.
For most of the way, until Fay falls into the hands of terrorists, "Fay Grim" is a very dry slice of deadpan humor. Hartley enjoys turning the espionage conventions on their head. When, for example, Fulbright bemoans the fact that Fay has "gone over to the other side," his aide replies, "Other side of what?"
Hartley also deliberately withholds from us the pulp pleasures of the genre, although part of the reason for this may be the fact that he has no aptitude for thrills. Whenever he features a shootout or a chase scene, the staging is so sloppy that I assumed, probably wrongly, he was being satirical. In order to successfully satirize action scenes, you still must know how to stage them.
When Fay is captured and blindfolded by terrorists, Hartley still maintains his dry tone, but by this time the movie has ventured into inflammatory territory that is quite beyond this film's limited political or comedic scope.
Hartley is very adept with actors, though – or at least some of them. Posey, for her part, displays a pert quizzical quality that's very charming and very funny. And Goldblum is tailor-made for Hartley's minimalist patter. He rattles off the lines in a propulsive monotone that is less spymaster than auctioneer.
I don't know if Hartley is planning another sequel, but if so, it should be called "Agent Fulbright."
"Fay Grim" is being released simultaneously in theaters, on HdnetTV, and on DVD. Grade: B-
• Rated R for language and some sexuality.