Henry Poole Is Here

Luke Wilson’s career has taken a considerable nosedive over the past few years, and yet remarkably little has been made of it. In recent times he’s found himself relegated to the ignominy of virtual direct-to-DVD releases (Idiocracy, Blonde Ambition – playing second fiddle to Jessica Simpson no less) or unnecessary cameos (3:10 to Yuma, Blades of Glory). Of course, he was never a huge star to begin with, but there was a period not too long ago when he appeared in a string of critical and commercial successes.

His last major studio release, My Super Ex-Girlfriend in 2006, was a huge flop and his directorial debut, The Wendell Baker Story, albeit quaint, barely registered with anyone. His latest film, Henry Poole Is Here, continues this trend with its blink-and-you-missed-it summer release and general critical drubbing. And yet Wilson still hasn’t been subject to any damning headlines or career autopsy reports. I guess being so darn affable has its benefits when it comes to dealing with the Hollywood press.

In Henry Poole Is Here, Wilson plays a glum guy with little interest in anything or anyone who moves into a house in a small California neighborhood under mysterious circumstances. Despite repeatedly insisting he just wants to be left alone, he works very hard to foster his mysterious reputation by giving cryptic responses to neighbors that imply more than they need to. “If you didn’t want to talk about it you wouldn’t have brought it up,” a character finally says, calling his bluff.

Henry receives more attention than he ever anticipated when an image appears on the side of his house that captivates the neighborhood. Henry insists it’s merely a stain, the product of a lousy stucco job, but his chatterbox neighbor Esperanza (Adriana Barraza) insists that what has appeared is the face of God. A tussle ensues between Henry and the various members of the community, all eager to witness what they believe is a miracle. Eventually Henry’s sullen demeanor wears off as he warms to the charms of the hot single mom next door (Radha Mitchell).

Wilson, who proved he can play taciturn very well in The Royal Tenenbaums and is a master of aw-shucks charm in sundry other roles, shows the limits of his range here as he just can’t pull off prickly. His puppy dog eyes constantly belie the indignation his character purports to carry. As such, the character comes off as mildly perturbed rather than completely dejected. Without fully buying into the character’s rancor, the movie becomes increasingly tedious.

While quite sentimental, the film avoids the maudlin by resisting a 180-degree character turn for Henry. As he slowly starts to embrace life, his behaviors never appear completely out of character; a commendable move on the part of screenwriter Albert Torres, but also something that renders the film rather ineffectual considering the plot expectations. Ultimately, the film isn’t religious enough to be shown in Sunday school, but has enough of a Christian bent that if it were a book it would be shelved in the Christian Inspiration section.

It reminded me a lot of Lars and the Real Girl in that both films concern a troubled young man receiving support from a community that rallies together with unquestionable faith that they can help him through his situation. Although unlike in Craig Gillespie’s lovely film, with Henry Poole Is Here, I kept feeling like Henry didn’t really deserve salvation. Bland and without much display of humanity he didn’t display much potential for growth. I certainly don’t know what the Radha Mitchell’s character could have found interesting about him aside from his convenient location. But I guess that’s where the Christian Inspiration element comes in: no one is beyond salvation.

The film has difficulty transitioning its central plot device (Is it a stain? Is it God? Does it matter either way?) from page to screen. The tension between what is seen by a character and what is seen by the viewer is inherently difficult to reconcile cinematically. The ambiguity of perception is a notoriously difficult thing to convey in the moving image, as things tend to be seen by all or by none. Images generally alternate between the apparent and the incoherent (e.g., the action scenes in Transformers) with barely any room for middle ground ambiguity. Not that it can’t be achieved though; one need only think of the masterful conveyance of seeing verses not seeing in Antonioni’s Blow-Up. And for that matter Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso possesses perhaps the greatest trompe l’oeil in all of cinema.

Henry Poole elides this issue by presenting the stain/face with swirling cameras and in fleeting shots that give the viewer precious little time to regard the image itself. Without presenting the image for scrutiny, the viewer has barely any opportunity to decide for themselves what it might represent. Later, the film introduces POV shots from within the wall that endow the stain/face with an ethereal quality, pretty much making up the viewers’ minds for them.

The DVD offers some comparably underwhelming special features that include two incredibly bland music videos for slightly less bland songs, a misrepresentative trailer, an audio commentary by director Mark Pellington and screenwriter Torres and a 20-minute making-of featurette. The featurette is mostly promotional backslapping rather than actual insight into the behind the scenes process, although it does give a few glimpses of Pellington’s hands-on approach to filmmaking. The most interesting element is getting to see the cast and crew interacting with the real life community of the small California neighborhood where they filmed.

There’s also a good amount of the cast and crew praising Wilson’s languid charm both on screen and off. Even with lingering memories of his weak performance in the film, listening to their stories and hearing Wilson himself speak is enough to remember why he always seems to escape the brunt of public scorn.

RATING 4 / 10