Saturday, August 7, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Henry Poole is Here"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant).

If there's a lesson to be learned from Mark Pellington's Henry Poole Is Here, it's that it is all about the approach. Here we have a film with a concept that could have been played for cheap laughs or maudlin sentimentality, but it pitches straight down the middle, taking its story seriously but not solemnly. And it somehow plays, cleverly sidestepping most (if not all) of the pitfalls it could have tumbled down.
The story: Luke Wilson is the titular character, a clearly depressed, barely functioning alcoholic who moves into a house in his childhood neighborhood, apparently for a good, old-fashioned, Leaving Las Vegas-style drinking to death. Then his Catholic neighbor (Adriana Barraza) notices that the water stain on his stucco outside wall looks like the face of Christ, an argument that gains some credibility when it starts seeping drops of blood and healing those who touch it.

Radha Mitchell (so good in Melinda and Melinda a couple years back) plays Dawn, the single mom next door, whose daughter may have been healed by the stain; her and Henry begin a courtship that is somewhat arbitrary but still sweet and convincing. George Lopez turns in a fine, understated performance as an understanding priest, while Richard Benjamin makes another of his frustratingly infrequent (and too-brief) film appearances as Henry's doctor. On the other hand, the great Cheryl Hines (of "Curb Your Enthusiasm") is wasted in a throwaway role; she's gone by the ten-minute mark, so I'm not quite sure why they bothered to engage her for such a flat character.

Screenwriter Albert Torres' script is smart and unsentimental--the set-up (particularly Henry's back story) is intriguing, and Torres admirably holds out the exposition for as long as possible. Some of the story's beats are predictable, yes, but as it comes to the home stretch, its third act is genuinely involving and somewhat suspenseful. We have our suspicions, but we're not sure exactly where this is going, and the filmmakers throw us some curveballs on the way to the (mostly) satisfying resolution (though it should be noted that the delicacy of the closing sequence is nearly ruined by the hoary clich├ęs of the lyrics in the final song).

Torres' greatest achievement, however, is in transcending the potential silliness of the material, finding just the right note, and holding it. Henry Poole neither sneers at its premise nor indulges it too greatly; he and director Pellington approach the material matter-of-factly, and that's the right call.

Pellington's mastery of tone is matched by his visual acumen--this is a director with a distinctive, impressive eye. His frames are well-composed, and his angles and camera moves are interesting and elegant without calling too much attention to themselves. And he made the right choice (albeit an unconventional one) in selecting Wilson as his leading man; after so many underwritten-boyfriend turns (as in the Charlie's Angels and Legally Blonde films), it is nice to be reminded that this is a fine, versatile actor (a fact unfortunately buried within the criminally under-seen Wendell Baker Story, which he also wrote and co-directed).

Pellington's pretty pictures can't always cover up the minor story distractions (does anyone in this neighborhood have a job?) or occasional stylistic missteps (the mid-film montage that explains the title is mighty corny), but no matter. Henry Poole Is Here is an admirably bold, fascinating film that dodges cynicism and tells a compelling story well.

In choosing to present its story of faith and miracles as neither a satire nor full-on religious polemic, the makers of Henry Poole Is Here may have eliminated the two audiences most likely to embrace it fully. But the resulting film is more thoughtful and interesting, and worth seeking out by viewers looking off the beaten path.

Originally published at DVD Talk, 1/20/09. "Henry Poole is Here" is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and via Netflix Instant Viewing.

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