Jun 27, 2007

DVD Review: Fay Grim

Fay Grim (Parker Posey) is an ordinary single mother from Brooklyn who is unexpectedly thrust into the middle of a crazy Robert Ludlum sort of international double- and triple-cross espionage plot. She’s a character from a darkish family comedy lost in a genre she doesn’t belong in, which is an excellent recipe for comedy. And for it’s first half, Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim is a terrific black comedy.

Fay goes from a meeting with the principal to discuss her troubled son, Ned (who has brought a pornographic Viewmaster into school) to a surprise meeting with two CIA agents in her apartment. She goes from a boring, depressing situation she’s all too familiar with to an extraordinary one in which she has no idea what to do.

We gather from the meeting with the principal that Ned’s estranged father, Henry was a bit of a wayward soul–an inveterate bullshitter at best, and possibly a murderer at worst. Fay is worried that Ned will turn out like his father, especially without a positive male influence in his life. Her brother, Simon Grim (a best-selling poet), is currently incarcerated for aiding and abetting Henry in his escape, much to Fay’s dismay. Fay claims to be over Henry and happy he’s gone, yet she can’t bring herself to say she’s single without adding a bewildered "sort of" to the end. And she finds herself explaining exactly that to Agents Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) and Fogg ("you can call him Carl," Fulbright condescendingly adds) in her apartment.

Apparently Henry penned a lengthy manifesto, filling seven notebooks, which may have exposed government secrets–and incriminated Agent Fulbright. At the time, Fay and everyone else dismissed it as incomprehensible, made-up ramblings, but suddenly there’s a lot of interest in these ramblings. Simon’s publisher, Angus, wants to print them because he feels Simon’s readers would be interested in the writings of the person their idol was willing to go to jail for. And now the CIA wants them, too.

Fulbright and the younger Fogg have fantastic interplay between them, and Goldblum excels at this sort of comedy. Fay’s astounded to hear that her former husband may not have been lying when he described wild adventures with mullahs and contras ("the Pope threw a chair at him," Ned chimes in), and crushed to hear that he is dead. The CIA needs Fay to go to Paris and retrieve the notebooks from the French government, because only a widow can claim such property. Fay strikes a deal to get Simon out of jail if she cooperates, and then she’s off to Paris.
In Paris, it becomes clear that there are other parties interested in the manuscripts as well. Fay encounters a strange woman named Bebe (Nadja’s Ellena Lowenstein) in the bathroom where she is to meet her contact, but Bebe is scared off by Fay’s ringing phone. The man she met on the plane isn’t who he seems. Neither are the hotel employees. And neither is her contact.

Meanwhile, back in New York, someone shoots at Angus hoping to get one of the notebooks. Fay finds herself tangled up with British, French, Russian and Israeli agents, as well as international terrorists and the mysterious Bebe, all vying for the notebooks. Confusing matters, the French have created fake notebooks, so there are two sets floating around.

Hartley shoots almost every corner of Paris that Fay traverses at a canted angle, as if he thinks that’s what makes a spy movie. The surprise is: it works, so maybe he’s onto something! The camera angles and gray color scheme, combined with an effective (but in some places strangely inappropriate and intrusive) score really play up the mysterious, Ludlumesque feel to the world. Fay’s wardrobe also adds to the spy mystique; her sexy black coat (a gift from Angus) looks like it could have come from Emma Peel’s closet. But Hartley chokes when it comes to shooting action. In fact, he doesn’t shoot it. Instead, he creates a digital strobe effect, presenting the various shootouts Fay finds herself in the middle of as a series of rapidly changing still images. I suppose this is meant to represent how Fay sees the action herself, unable to fully process it, unable to believe that she’s actually experiencing it. But unfortunately it has the opposite effect, and instead of putting the audience in Fay’s place, it momentarily takes us out of the movie, calling attention to the fact that it is a movie and to the digital video it’s shot on.

Still, when the gunfire dies down and the strobing stops, Hartley continues to effectively build suspense while maintaining the intrinsic humor of the incredible situation this woman finds herself in. Both are aided immensely by the fact that Posey crafts such a believable, realistic and likable main character, so despite the occasional showstopping camera effect, we do relate to her and empathize with her. The director also pulls off one very Hitchcockian setpiece in which Fay, in her iconic black coat, scrambles across the rooftops of Paris to evade the various secret services that are chasing her. As soon as any shooting starts, of course, we go to still frames.

Her Parisian adventure not only terrifies Fay; it also invigorates her. A character who started out so passive that she locked herself in the bathroom for a long, hot bath rather than dealing with her troubles (an expelled child, would-be suitors) finds the passion required to elude all the world’s spy agencies and slip away to Istanbul on a fake passport with Bebe in tow. Fay’s discovered that they’re in love with the same man (even if Fay herself won’t admit she still loves Henry), and she seems as much driven to protect Bebe as to find Henry, who Fay’s come to believe is still alive, no matter what Fulbright told her. Unfortunately, Fay’s little sojourn to the Bosporus gets her labeled a traitor by the CIA, and soon Fulbright himself is on her trail as well as everyone else.

Istanbul is another great, exotic spy location that evokes plenty of Cold War thrillers, but it’s also where the movie starts to go downhill. Because in Istanbul, we meet Henry. Henry as we see him here is a pretty unlikable, off-putting character, not the charismatic enigma we think we know from the way people talk about him in the first half of the movie. He’s also aiding a Bin Ladin-like terrorist named Said Khan, which doesn’t make him any more sympathetic. Overall, Fay Grim works without having seen Henry Fool (to which it is a nominal sequel), but not at this point, because we can’t know why this intelligent character (Fay) would be in love with such a man. Presumably the first film makes that clear.

Without understanding Fay’s love for Henry, it’s impossible to fully comprehend why she makes the choices she makes in the third act, or even, necessarily, what those choices are. Everything becomes murky at the end. This may be a commentary on the espionage genre as a whole, and on the real-life business of spying, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying conclusion, to my mind anyway. Fay has a satisfying arc as a character, but I would have really liked to know more about her motivations at the end, and have a better understanding of what actually happens in the plot.

Luckily, Hal Hartley sums that up for us in one of the disc’s special features, Making Fay Grim. He says Fay is a "representative American who’s a well-intentioned, decent person who’s a bit naive about how the world is." Well, that part I see. "Not given the opportunity not to confront the violence in the world, she must acknowledge it... and she beats [the spooks] at their own game." This is the part I’m less clear on. It sounds great, but I didn’t really get that from the movie. I won’t go into details because I want to avoid potential spoilers, but I wasn’t sure that Fay had even won in the end, let alone beaten anyone at their own game!

Apparently no one involved in the first film expected the sequel to be a spy movie, judging by their comments in the "making of" featurette. Posey was surprised, and Thomas Jay Ryan, who plays Henry, says that he would have played the part completely differently in the first movie if he’d had even an inkling that any of Henry’s yarns were the truth! The featurette is well-done, and complements the movie nicely, filling in some holes on screen. But it focuses much more on interviews with the cast and director than on the actual filmmaking process. Another feature is an episode of IFC’s Higher Definition focusing on the movie, in which a pompous hipster-type who has no business hosting a TV show (even on IFC!) interviews most of the same participants and gushes over the film. The host is so annoying I stopped watching halfway through, but it was definitely good of Lionsgate to include this feature anyway. There’s also an intriguing trailer for the film that would have gotten me to see it in the theater had I ever actually seen the trailer.
Despite my misgivings about the end, I still recommend Fay Grim. There’s enough espionage going on to hold any spy fan’s interest, and the performances are all first-rate, especially Posey and Goldblum. It’s a shame that the final product is flawed, but not a detriment. The disc also boasts a nice array of bonus material for an indie film, which are often movie-only affairs.

3 comments:

Rogue Spy 007 said...

This is a movie I've heard of, but never seen. I've read a lot of mixed reviews online. Some people love it, and some loathe it. Your article was really outstanding, and made me interested to give it a shot. I've always been a fan of Parker Posey. She's usually pretty good even if the movie she's in sucks.

Bruce said...

It's a Hal Hartley film so expect a whole lot of non action. I'm a fan of his but man can his films feel like they are slooooooooooooooooooooooow.

Tanner said...

The first half actually moves SURPRISINGLY quickly for a Hartley film! Like I said, weird as it sounds, it's kind of Hartley doing Ludlum. But then the second half starts to drag, particularly scenes with Henry. Posey is great, though, and the movie is definitely worth seeing.