Henry Fool (1997): Hartley’s Tale of Two Losers

Henry Fool is sort of a summation movie that embraces all of Hal Hartley’s thematic motifs.  Sharply uneven, the film is in moments poetic, meditative, and touching, but it’s also pretentious, overlong (138 minutes) and dull.

At the center is the tale of two eccentric losers: a garbage man whose life is changed by a hobo philosopher.  Like his previous features, Henry Fool is a dark comedy about frustrated individuals in blue-collar Long Island, who are pushed into a self-awareness journey, through which they discover the meaning of friendship and the unpredictable workings of fate.

Citing Joyce’s Ulysses, Beckett, and the legends of Faust and Kasper Hauser as inspirations, Harltley reflects on American culture’s values of excessive conformity and conservatism.  He also probes into the vagaries of fate, specifically how individuals can creatively reinvent themselves and the unexpected ways in which life redefines personal identities and tangled relationships.

Though declared by some critics as a return to form, after the unsuccessful outings of “Amateur” and “Flirt,” Henry Fool was a commercial failure even by standards of indies, again showing how hermetically sealed Hartley’s cinematic world has become and how esoteric his appeal is.