Henry Poole is Here is an object lesson in how people “cling to guns or religion” to cope with individual hardship and disadvantage. In the film, if not in the communities so affronted by Barack Obama’s controversial comment, the denizens of a just-this-side-of-run-down L.A. suburb are desperate to cling to something to make sense of their lives, and religious experience will do fine. Just so, these down-and-outers participate, willingly or skeptically, in mass religious hysteria when they come to believe that the water stain on a stucco wall is a miraculous image of Christ.
The story begins with the arrival of Henry Poole (Luke Wilson). His strangeness is cast initially in terms of real estate: he doesn’t haggle over the price of his new house or even allow his agent (Cheryl Hines) to do so on his behalf. When he moves in, he brings precious little furniture or belongings, and rebuffs the neighborhood gossip Esperanza’s (Adriana Barraza) overtures towards conviviality.
Henry’s secret (he’s dying of an unnamed disease) is none too difficult to discern, as he repeatedly, “cryptically,” refers to the fact that he doesn’t need to fix up the place or get more furniture, as he “won’t be here for that long.” Henry hasn’t just come to the neighborhood to die, though. We discover that despite his protestations and pronounced atheism, he is really desperately seeking some “meaning” in his life and death. Henry is, then, ripe for some good old-fashioned evangelical conversion.
Lucky thing he’s found his way to this particular neighborhood. Esperanza is the devout Latina who “discovers” the miracle. When Henry is presented by Esperanza with Christ’s visage on his house’s exterior, he insists all he sees is a “water stain from a lousy stucco job.” Esperanza counters that he isn’t looking hard enough. Looking hard enough and wanting to see, wanting to believe in something bigger than oneself, is the essence of Esperanza’s (and the movie’s) faith, and it is to Henry’s great detriment that he can’t shed himself of his secular ways, despite the mounting evidence that what is going on is a “true” miracle and despite Epseranza’s anguished query, “Mr. Poole, don’t you believe in God!?”
While it might sound like a spoof of evangelicism akin to Brian Dannelly’s Saved! (2004), Henry Poole is Here is dreadfully earnest in delivering its message of Christian redemption — earnest and clichéd. One of Henry’s ready-to-believe neighbors, Dawn (Radha Mitchell), has a traumatized daughter, Millie (Morgan Lily), who hasn’t spoken since her daddy left the family. On touching the stucco-wall Christ, her speech is restored. Funny how these things work out: Millie’s admiration of her new father-figure Henry drives him to confront the past demons of his own dysfunctional family. And don’t forget the checkout clerk at the local grocery store, whose name is named Patience (Rachel Seiferth); it’s a virtue, don’t ‘cha know?
Your faith and your patience, however, likely won’t fare as well for sitting through the slow-moving, lackluster Henry Poole is Here. If only Henry had clung to guns instead of religion, the movie might have at least provided an action sequence.