Fay Grim, director Hal Hartley's follow-up to his 1997 cult favorite, Henry Fool, is just about as sharp, dark and funny as a Hartley fan could wish for. Henry Fool, in case you've missed seeing it, is a little gem of a film about a socially repressed young man, Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) who works as a garbage man to support his depressed mother and nymphomaniac sister, Fay (Parker Posey, in one of her best roles).
When Henry Fool, a vulgar, chain-smoking, self-styled intellectual takes up residence in the family basement to finish writing his "Confession" -- which he claims is so astounding it will turn the literary world upon its ear -- Simon befriends him, and Henry becomes his mentor. Simon eventually writes a book-length poem, which gets published and critically acclaimed, while Henry's confession is found to be inept and practically unreadable. When Henry accidentally kills their disgusting neighbor, Simon trades identities with Henry to help him escape.
Fay Grim picks up seven years after Henry Fool left off, with Simon serving a prison sentence and Henry (and the notebooks in which he wrote his Confession) nowhere to be found. Fay's obsession in life is raising her 14-year-old son, Ned, to not be like his father. Simon, meanwhile, has come to suspect that Henry's Confession was so atrociously bad that it must have been deliberate, and believes that the entire literary work was really a secretly encoded history of international atrocities committed by the governments of numerous countries. Shortly after Ned receives a mystery package -- an antique picture viewer with an orgy scene that may or may not contain an encrypted message -- the CIA shows up on Fay's doorstep, in the form of smooth-talking Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum). Fulbright has arrived to tell Fay that her husband is dead -- killed in a hotel fire shortly after he disappeared -- and that two of his notebooks are in the possession of the French government. The United States government wants those notebooks, and, thanks to an obscure French law which allows only Fay, as Henry's widow, to claim his property, they want to use her to get them.
Fay agrees on the condition that they get Simon released from prison, but soon finds herself caught in a web of international espionage and terrorism. The more she learns about the man she has both loathed and loved for all these years, the more attractive he seems to her, and the more compelled she is to try to find him before the agents of one country or another kill him -- or her.
Whether Hartley envisioned this sequel when he penned the first film, or only came up with the idea when he sat down to write the second, it was a brilliant decision to focus the follow-up to Henry Fool on Posey's character. In Henry Fool, Fay was a funny, trashy, nymphomaniac who fell head-over-heels for a crass, subversive man; in Fay Grim, the premise is turned on its head, and we and Fay begin to realize that Henry's unpolished exterior may have all been an elaborate cover-up. Fay, initially overwhelmed by the news that her husband is dead, is smart enough to use the CIA's interest in Henry's notebooks to get her brother out prison. She then uses Fulbright's clear belief that she is a foolish, empty-headed bimbo he can use to get what he wants to cross and double-cross him. When we meet Fay at the beginning of the film, she is anxious and uncertain; by the time the closing credits roll, she has evolved into the smart and capable woman she always was beneath her trashy exterior.
Tautly written dialogue flawlessly performed by the principals, especially Posey and Goldblum, keeps the film moving along at a speedy clip. Posey has been my fave indie actress ever since 1995's Party Girl, and she doesn't disappoint here. Her turn reprising the role of Fay Grim is as smart, manic and witty as one would expect from Posey, and she completely carries the film. Goldblum is perfectly cast as the oily CIA man. I'd forgotten, almost, how much I really enjoy Goldblum when he's in a role he's well-suited for. Thomas Jay Ryan, whom I've seen sadly little of since Henry Fool and another of my favorite Hartley films, 1998's The Book of Life (in which he played an excellent Satan), gets to reprise his best-known role, and turns up the dark, brooding, vulgar charm of Henry to full force.