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August 18, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | August 18, 2008 |

With Henry Poole Is Here, Luke Wilson continues his frustrating trend of lending his affable screen presence to increasingly worthless projects. Perhaps more than any other actor, Wilson’s career coasts along on nothing more than sheer goodwill; aside from appearances in some of Wes Anderson’s films, the man is almost never involved in projects that could be quantified as good, or even “good.” This dichotomy between the likeable man and his questionable surroundings was most pronounced in Idiocracy, Mike Judge’s deeply flawed “comedy” from a couple years back, and like that movie, Henry Poole Is Here suffers from a bloated concept that probably looked good on paper but that takes on only a feeble life when put to film. Wilson’s performance isn’t terrible, but then, he doesn’t have a lot of competition. The film is a lifeless imitation of a real story, a pseudo-slick, shallow glimpse of a story that could have been so much better.

Henry Poole (Wilson) is a sad, angry man; I know this because several characters refer to him as such, perhaps because first-time screenwriter Albert Torres wasn’t quite sure if mere actions would or could be enough to communicate character traits on screen. (They are.) Henry relocates from Texas to the burbs of Southern California, buys a dumpy house, and begins to load up on microwaveable pizzas and copious amounts of liquor. It’s pretty clear he’s out to drink himself to death, but he picked the wrong neighborhood for a quiet exit. His neighbor, Esperanza (Adriana Barraza), shows up one day with a plate of tamales to welcome him to town, and she notices a water stain in the middle of a bad stucco job on Henry’s backyard wall. She sees in the stain the image of the face of Jesus, and promptly begins to lose it while calling up friends and her local priest to report the miraculous appearance. Before long, Father Salazar (George Lopez [!]) shows up, and while he admits that the stain could bear a passing resemblance to Christ, he’s not willing to claim it as supernatural event just yet. Henry, meanwhile, just wants to be left alone; I know this because he yells, “I just wanna be left alone!” Torres is nothing if not helpful, but director Mark Pellington — whose diverse credits range from Arlington Road to U2 3D — doesn’t do much with the aimless script besides punch up some of the “emotional” scenes with slow-motion, smash cuts, and fancy lights. He’s dealing with the issue of faith on one hand, which is treated alternately with respect and curiosity, but he’s also trying to tie it in with the more tangible aspects of Henry’s life, and it just doesn’t work.

The problems isn’t necessarily that Pellington is making a movie about faith, even one as cookie-cutter and answer-dodging as this one turns out to be. It’s that he’s trying to marry it to another similar story about a man coming to grips with his past and learning to love again, and as trite and dull as all that sounds, it could have been loads better had Pellington and/or Torres had the resolve to narrow their scope in exchange for more textured characters. In addition to the growing cult around his wall, Henry also finds himself getting to know his other neighbor, Dawn (Radha Mitchell), and her 6-year-old daughter, Millie (Morgan Lily). Millie hasn’t spoken in the year since her father, Dawn’s husband, walked out for unspecified reasons, and she’s one of the many characters whose interaction with Henry — and more specifically, his wall — involves a kind of physical and emotional healing. There’s also the fact that Henry chose his house because it’s down the street from the one where he grew up, and in addition to dealing with suicidal tendencies, flirting with the hot mom next door, and figuring out the whole God thing, he’s also got to put down the classic white middle-class demon of parents who fought a lot. The guy’s got a lot going on, and Pellington doesn’t know where to go with it.

The rest of the film unfolds with a kind of genial blandness as Henry is tempted in his faith and acceptance of what might or might not be a water stain with supernatural powers that actually starts to bleed at one point. None of Torres’ dialogue is particularly memorable, and in fact he often seems to go out of his way to make sure Wilson — an actor with a gift for subtle punch lines — is given nothing good to say or do. Granted, the film isn’t a comedy like some of Wilson’s other films, but he’s so flat here that he’s barely a character. But then, that’s the film’s whole problem. Instead of becoming a legitimate investigation into what these people might actually feel in these situations, the story is instead a regrettably predictable parable about appreciating life even when it’s crappy. Even the character names reflect the film’s meager intentions: Esperanza means “hope,” Dawn is cheaply indicative of a new day for Henry, and there’s even a girl named Patience (Rachel Seiferth) who works at Henry’s grocery store. Patience is sweet and goofy and prying in the way of many young nerds, and she attempts to counsel Henry long before she even learns of his stained wall. But she’s not a person: She’s a thing, a place-holder, a cardboard cutout of an idea about a spiritual concept that Henry needs to learn without having it spelled out for him on a flannel board.

The most depressingly definitive moment of the film is when Henry goes out for a walk through the river drainage ditch running through town. He’s wracked with guilt about his growing feelings for Dawn and his inability to reconcile that with his ruined past and his love for the allure of self-destruction. Or at least, that’s what I decided to interpret from the sequence. What actually happens is that Pellington uses a lot of close-ups, lays some mid-tempo adult rock behind the action, blasts the screen with flashes of light, and actually has Henry turn around in slow-motion to see his childhood self go bicycling past. It’s like the worst music video you’ve ever seen, and it’s horribly indicative of the film’s weakness. Pellington’s film is a copy of a copy of a decent concept, and its attempts at emotional honesty ring consistently false. Henry never legitimately engages his faith or his girlfriend or anything in his life with a modicum of believability, and what could have been a relatable character drama becomes a poorly drawn fable with “conclusions” as shallow as the cheap people wandering through it.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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