Henry Poole was here… And he sued for malpractice.

August 24, 2008 at 9:00 am | Posted in movies | 1 Comment
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Esparanza: You know you can’t go to the past to fix the future.
Henry Poole: You sound like a fortune cookie.
Esparanza: [laughs] Cookies can’t talk.

Henry Poole is Here
AMC Stony Brook – August 21, 2008

By now, my love of independent film should be apparent to the Orgconfuz audience, based on the variety of reviews ventured on thus far. May it never be said that I did not give a fair shot to the poor yet earnest filmmakers of this world. The plight of the independent filmmaker is a noble one, an uphill battle the whole way. Getting films produced – particularly in an struggling economy – is hard enough even before it graces the big screen. And for that I applaud you. May Hollywood continue to take a chance on the underdog!

Having said that, Henry Poole is Here is a great example of the “indie formula” at work. Not so much in the film gone awry way, in the cookie-cutter “inject obligatory star into everyman role and place him in emotionally wrought but surmountable circumstances” way. In the wake of indie gems such as Little Miss Sunshine, Hollywood has turned up its ear to stories about “real people” and “real problems” set to a quirky soundtrack (with maybe a couple plot points suspended by disbelief). The familiarity of a neighbor or a loved one, even a checkout girl, rings true to life and becomes accessible in a way that a fairytale or comic book character never could.

This by no means is to discredit Luke Wilson, who gives an effortless portrayal of the title character for which the film is named. I’m sure after the Royal Tenenbaums came out, both he and his brother Owen could wipe their butt with every film school script with quirky promise they were offered. (and for good reason, I might add). “I liked the script a lot. I mean, obviously, I guess I do more comedies so I just read the script and I liked it. It seemed like something different. I liked the idea of playing a guy that’s kind of given up hope. That seemed like kind of an interesting place to start a movie, with a guy that’s just kind of trying to fade away. I thought that was kind of interesting. And then he kind of keeps getting drawn out.” The script didn’t read like a comedy. Instead, Wilson says it’s just where his mind took the story. “There was stuff that was funny, but I don’t know. That’s just my first instinct is to go to that, to think about stuff like that. I mean it had humorous aspects, but it read definitely more like a drama.” (source)

The film opens as Wilson says, with a guy in despair… the kind of rock bottom that only a straight diet of champagne and Krispy Kreme doughnuts can append. We don’t know why he’s so sad and reclusive, but as stated several times in the movie, anyone with two eyes can see it. He buys a house in the neighborhood where he was raised. Despite the kind offering of the real estate agent, Poole insists that no repairs be made because “he’s not going to be there very long.” A nosy neighbor, Esparanza – which means Hope – brings a housewarming plate and tries to get to know him, revealing that she knew the man who lived (and died) in the house before him. One day, Esparanza discovers something on walls outside of Henry Poole’s house: an impression of the face of Jesus within a water stain from a lousy stucco job. Even though all he wants is to be left alone, this discovery leads only to a constant, but comical intrusion by many onlookers. The subject of faith and the belief in miracles are debated at length when Poole cynically argues with her regarding the inexplicable healing powers that she believes to be miracles. By some stroke of luck, a beautiful single mother lives next door with her adorably mute daughter, who charms Poole by recording his conversations and then playing them back to him. The plot continues to unravel and blur, revealing through flashbacks the true source of Poole’s depression and reveals his waning faith. The ending… well, for those inclined I’ll discuss that in the spoilers section below.

Roger Ebert cast a positive light in regard to the film’s religious aspect: “Henry Poole Is Here achieves something that is uncommonly difficult. It is a spiritual movie with the power to emotionally touch believers, agnostics and atheists – in that descending order, I suspect. It doesn’t say that religious beliefs are real. It simply says that belief is real.” FilmJabber reviewer Robert Bell writes: “To dismiss Henry Poole is Here as a maudlin rumination on faith and religion would be to ignore the inherent human struggles and blatant annihilation anxieties rumbling beneath the surface, which are exposed only through the central “religious” plot device that unites a group of people who would otherwise have little to do with each other. Surface thematic interpretation aside, systemic cultural incertitude surrounding sincere emotion and the fear of complex mortal thoughts outside of the minutia that society is socialized to value and prioritize will likely cause most to ignore the film’s deeper human themes, which is really a shame as it’s one of the better films thus far in 2008.” Which basic boils down to this: Though religious plot device may be the catalyst, it’s the raw human emotion underneath that counts. It is clear that the characters in this movie feel things and deeply. The connections that take place are heart-felt and endearing, though the overall tone has a sense of impending gloom and doom. The balance of emotion was off-putting at times, but nonetheless you genuinely feel for the characters.

Director Mark Pellington first came across the script for Henry Poole Is Here back in 2003. Although he was touched by the story about a man who returns to his hometown for solace, he passed on the project. A year later, he changed his mind when his wife passed away, suddenly leaving him a single dad to their 2 1/2 year-old daughter. In an instant, he had much more in common with Henry Poole than he ever would have expected, “To be able to basically find a story where all the characters were dealing with loss or the possibility of loss-I felt comfortable in that world.”

It was a large surprise when I researched the film to find that Pellington had directed Arlington Road, a fantastic movie from the 90’s starring Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins. (Rent it!) A filmmaker with a deep music video catalog which includes Pearl Jam’s groundbreaking “Jeremy” and Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” which has a distinctive Mulholland Drive-esque quality to it. Mark Pellington has always been a master of atmosphere and mood. In Henry Poole Is Here, though, he rolls the dice on a much more personal story, and elevates the script written by Albert Torres. On his inspiration for the film, Torres explains, “I grew up Catholic and heard about these kinds of things happening (faces appearing on objects) and how they affected people in certain communities. I started to think about what kind of person, who would be the worst person for something like this to happen to and that was the starting point.” Though Henry Poole may be cynical, Pellington never allows the film to be.

MAY THE SPOILERS BEGIN! …………………………………………………………………..

Now that I am safe to speak freely about the ending, I have to blurt this out… COME ON! I mean, I understand that the tone of the film, nor Henry Poole’s character would not necessarily lead to an explosive conclusion. But COME ON! You were told you would die from a horrible, fast-moving disease. You give up everything you have to buy a house down the street from your childhood home (that you fail to procure after obsessively pursuing it). You drink and eat Krispy Kremes all day. The house you buy becomes an oracle and tests your faith at the worst possible time. Neighbors are nosy are shit (but lovable). You reject HOT single next-door mother that you are clearly falling for – cause you told her you were going to die and not anyone else. After all this, you take out all your rage on your house which falls on you, landing you in the hospital where you are informed….. that you were never sick to begin with?????? Reaction: A) Go home happy cause a little girl spoke. B) Make some livid phone calls to your prior doctor, demanding an explanation!!! Yeah, I think I would go with B. At least in the movie Last Holiday, there was a plausible scapegoat with the faulty CAT-Scan, they didn’t even name the disease here! Geez.

In summation, I left the theater feeling emotionally drenched and uncomfortable with my reaction. It wasn’t until after I learned of the makers of the film that style and context aided my retrospective take on the story. And apparently, it was a big hit at Sundance Film Festival, which is always a good sign. I’d hate to belabor a point that was already made at the beginning of this review, but I love these movies. I love that these kind of movies are made. Nevertheless, I realize that they are not all going to blow me away. That lesson was learned with the Savages. Even though the Savages also had a melancholic tone, there was a believable through line with the character’s situation. Also, I am sad to say that this film could have been better, yet I can’t think how. My mother summed it up nicely by saying “It either needed to be a lot funnier, or it needed to be much more serious.” I am reminded of HBO’s Six Feet Under and wonder what Alan Ball might have done with a situation like this.

Possible still that I may come around even more upon subsequent viewings, but that is what DVD’s are for.

RATING: ***/5
Recommendation: It was worth seeing. If you have a free afternoon, it makes for an evocative matinée. Otherwise, its a rental.

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  1. If you missed Luke Wilson in Henry Poole the first time around, I encourage you to check out the recently released family version.
    I absolutely loved this movie! It was such a great story about a real life guy who was struggling with his faith and accepting it. This is something that I’ve been struggling with myself for the past couple of years. It was such an encouragement to see this played out. And it’s really cool that I’ve found a site, http://www.henrypoolebelieves.com. Right now it looks like they are giving away 10 copies of the movie for free. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, or even if you have, you could always give it to a friend, but it’s definitely worth checking out! This is a GREAT film for a FAMILY movie night and a break from typical Hollywood films!


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