Warning: Plot spoilers below.
“For my sins,” says CIA Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum), “I was sent to the middle of nowhere.” The screen cuts to “Afghanistan 1989,” where his counterterrorist conniving is bound to be thwarted. It’s hard to tell throughout FAY GRIM when or if Fulbright is ever telling the truth, but this flashback seems particularly cagey, as he’s recalling the moment when the U.S. used a certain self-proclaimed Islamic leader to undermine Russian efforts in the region. Here, the solemn, soon-jilted Arab’s name is Jallal Said Khan (Anatole Taubman), but there’s no mistaking his resemblance to bin Laden.
Parker Posey, Jeff Goldblum, Thomas Jay Ryan, Saffron Burrows, D.J. Mendel, Liam Aiken, Megan Gay, Leo Fitzpatrick, Jasmin Tabatabai, Chuck Montgomery, James Urbaniak
US theatrical: 18 May 2007 (Limited release)
Such blatant name (or face) dropping makes Fay Grim seem more topical than it is. On closer look, Hal Hartley’s sequel to Henry Fool (1997) is less concerned with the details of contemporary spy-craft and global deception than with broader moral questions. Exploring such themes in multiple conversations and permutations of language, the movie is, in the end, undone by the remarkable face and eloquent silence of Fay (Parker Posey).
Her first appearance here, many years after her estrangement from the conman Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), has her stating the obvious in an aptly cryptic manner: “I’m afraid for my son. I’m afraid that he’ll grow up to be like his father.” Her meaning, extending over familiar father-son stories as well as generational influences concerning wars on terror and world democratizing projects, is also precise in this instance. Fourteen-year-old Ned (Liam Aiken) is acting out, having brought a “pornographic device” (a hand-cranked viewer he received in the mail), and administrators are concerned. When Ned is expelled for “getting a blowjob” from a couple of classmates, Fay makes a decision. She must get her brother Simon (James Urbaniak), “the incarcerated garbage man-poet of Woodside, Queens,” out of prison, so that Ned might have a “father figure or something.”
Toward this end, Fay agrees to a couple of proposals by men, both premised on finding a missing volume of Henry’s unpublished but apparently massively important “confessions.” One proposal, from Simon’s publisher Angus (Chuck Montgomery), will lead to publication of Henry’s (admittedly bad) writing and increased sales of Simon’s poetry (on which royalties Fay and Ned depend to live). (Though the writing is, Fay and Angus agree, “bad,” he asserts they must press on, if only for the basest of reasons: “We can’t be too hard-line about these things, Fay. Anything capable of being sold can be worth publishing.”)
The second proposal, from Fulbright, concerns the volume’s value in a vast network of lies and historical power-shifting. According to Fulbright and his very sincere partner, young Fogg (Leo Fitzpatrick), Henry’s work holds some code naming locations of Israeli nuclear missile sites, intel that an array of nations—China, Germany, Belgium—are desperate to keep secret. For her part, Fay is concerned only with doing right things, by Henry, Ned, Simon, and, increasingly, the various agents she meets during her adventure.
That adventure turns increasingly intricate, as Fay and Simon. She goes forth on a jet-setting mission, from New York to Paris to Turkey, surveilled and manipulated when she doesn’t know it, then learning to use what she does know in order to achieve her own ends. At the same time, Simon, who is released from prison per her agreement with the CIA, joins with Angus, as they pursue the meaning of the “pornographic device,” that is, some writing on the sex scene’s background wall (the too-cleverness of this metaphor needn’t be underlined). Separately, then, Simon and Fay discover that Henry had dealings over the years in Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere; indeed, “After Chile,” he surfaced “in Nicaragua, amazingly and accidentally as a double agent for the Sandinistas and the U.S.-backed Contras.”
Suddenly, Henry is looking like the Forrest Gump of U.S. shenanigans, showing up in assorted hot spots, changing regimes and gesturing toward nation-building. When Fay displays horror on learning the U.S. would overthrow a government, Fulbright sets her straight: “It was inappropriate to the needs of the American economy,” he explains. “Hey, don’t get all fucking sensitive on me. That coat you’re wearing was most likely made by a bunch of seven-year-olds in Kuala Lampur.” Her face falls as she clutches the lapel of the very nice coat she’s been given to wear during her flight to France. Nobody’s our friend, Fay,” sighs the perfectly mournful Fulbright. “Times change, alliances shift. Something we were proud of a year a go becomes something we’ve gotta apologize for in front of the United Fucking Nations. Anyway, things went wrong.”
As they still do. Surrounded by all kinds of agents and terrorists pretending to be someone else, but Fay remains steadfastly Fay. This grants the mesmerizing Posey a completely intriguing role at last, while also showing up the ancient, self-serving tenets of spy-business-as-usual. Fay is not so naïve as to believe she’ll discover a “truth,” but she does want to believe her efforts are not in vain. Meantime, Simon and Angus pursue Fay, deducing—rightly, of course,—the CIA is not looking out for her best interests.
Fay finds her own interests. Sympathetic to Henry’s recent lover, the luscious, vaporous Bebe Konchalovsky (Elina Löwensohn), she’s chastised by sultry spy Juliette (Saffron Burrows). When Fay precisely differentiates between a couch and an ottoman, Juliette sniffs—in exactly the way Europeans sniff at Americans in the movies—“You Americans know all about home furnishings, but have no clue what’s happening in the world around you.” This is surely true of Fay, who insists, “I know I don’t want the killing to continue,” but Juliette has the answer for that too: “And you think that’s generosity of spirit, don’t you?” If Fay is not ever going to adopt anything like realpolitik, she is willing to listen and learn, and that makes her unlike all the spies, “soldiers of God,” and other schemers who seek to tell her what to do.
The movie generally reinforces the many disparities between worldviews by shadowy flashbacks, plotty dead-ends, and persistently too-clever compositions (close-up, canted angles throughout). Perhaps most telling is the juxtaposition between Fay with Henry, who does at last appear, engaged in his own, simultaneously practical and existential argument, with his erstwhile partner and current jailer Jallal. Henry explains their relationship by denigrating (“It’s just the way I am, I gravitate to the lowest common denominator on principle”). In turn, Jallal accuses Henry of sloppiness: now that his book is a hot commodity, Henry is “a trend, a sensation, we saw it on CNN.” Once exposed, once “confessed,” global governing efforts blow up. Henry, being the American in this relationship, has the last, brutal word, promising that he’ll torture Jallal and his family, that he’ll provide a “long lifetime of intolerable pain. Sorry,” he sniffs, “That’s just the kind of guy I am.”
It’s a grim assessment of how the U.S. tries to run he world, and if it’s not specific to the present administration, it appears to have reached a kind of apotheosis. But Fay Grim is not actually cynical. It is instead incisive, funny, even oddly affecting. Its point is plain enough—international intrigues result from small minds grappling with gigantic problems—but the revelation, however hackneyed, brings ineffable sadness. And Fay, so seemingly disconnected and despairing at first, becomes the ideal bearer of such bad news. Even as she knows options are few and her own understanding is limited, she finds something like faith. This makes her impossible as Henry’s partner. It also makes her affecting beyond words.