No one pulls off that bankably oddball combination of comatose and manic quite like Parker Posey. Reprising her role from 1997's Henry Fool, Posey is her usual electrified life force in Hal Hartley's sequel, Fay Grim.
But even the indie go-to girl when it comes to borderline-scary wackiness is not enough to keep Hartley's dead-end amble afloat.
Fay Grim opens with Posey hiding her light under a bushel as the titular frumped-out Woodside, Queens, wife and mother. Fay discovers the husband Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) she thought was dead at the conclusion of Henry Fool may not only be alive, but may also be at the center of a CIA investigation for his involvement in international terrorism.
A put-upon woman's film heroine who conjures up old-school suffering dames such as Mildred Pierce, Fay has a whole soup pot of troubles simmering on her stove top. There's the trouble-seeking teenage son Ned (Liam Aiken) she's been left to raise solo. And there's her garbage-man-turned-poet brother Simon (James Urbaniak) doing hard time in the big house for helping Henry escape the authorities in Henry Fool.
When Fay Grim opens, Ned has been expelled for bringing porn to school and getting blowjobs from two dishy blond classmates. Bedraggled Fay spends an entire day with two bags of groceries clutched tightly to her bosom for comic effect, ambling around town being interrogated by Ned's school principal, CIA agents and Simon's publisher.
Things begin deadpan and soon progress to absurd as Fay abandons her frumpy knit scarves and hangdog hausfrau act for some implausibly high-flying adventures in Paris.
Now incongruously dolled up in a sadomasochistic-chic ensemble of military-style coat and thigh-high leather boots, Fay travels to Paris to track down Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) and his notebooks of possibly treasonous "Confessions." In exchange for the notebooks, the CIA's man, Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum), agrees to release Simon from prison.
Once in Paris, Fay transforms from a worried mom wondering about her son's future into a kind of femme James Bond targeted for both sexual adoration and bad-guy attack. Dressed to kill and exceedingly vulnerable, she inspires all of the men she meets naturally to fall in love with her. Fay is variously aided and inhibited in her efforts to find Henry by the requisite indie, artsy beauty (Elina Löwensohn) and a stunning-but-deadly Israeli (Saffron Burrows) with a gun fetish. The typically comely women of Hartley's oeuvre suggest a director baiting the hook and offering eye-candy enticements when the story fails to deliver the requisite juice.
If Fay Grim was annoyingly precious initially, with the leap across the pond it becomes exasperating. As Fay jumps from various Paris hotel rooms to Istanbul souks and sweet shops, Hartley struggles with the misconception that a tangled plot perpetually in motion makes things more interesting.
In reality, the double crosses and double agents just make things garbled and match up badly with Hartley's penchant for strained, goofball comedy.
There is the possibility, too, that Hartley keeps things so busy because he doesn't really have a whole lot to say. Because despite all the interminable cloak-and-daggers intrigue, Fay Grim is more Pink Panther in its approach to international intrigue than Syriana. Hartley is clearly more interested in allusions to political hot zones such as Afghanistan and Israel than in some commentary on our charged political landscape.
Hartley works with conflicting sensations of droll and dull, offbeat and genuinely implausible, and paints with a very wide brush. The same emotional minimalism, ice-cold interpersonal relationships and coy, self-conscious wit that endear him to his fans can make his films unbearable for those not predisposed to the Hartley style. His vision of "quirk" is wafer-thin and includes his perceived "hilarious" juxtapositions such as a rabbi watching porn, Fay lighting up a cigarette in church, and allegorical names such as Henry Fool and Fay Grim. Like so many of his other films, Fay Grim feels painfully rudimentary, like a storybook-simple yarn for a certain hipster subset that digs the cutesy-pie shtick of Miranda July and Little Miss Sunshine. Those less mesmerized by such facetious indie-cute know who they are and should avoid Fay Grim and save themselves a great deal of exasperation.