Here’s an oddity. “Fay Grim” is the belated sequel to Hal Hartley’s 1998 comedy “Henry Fool,” a dark, aggressively offbeat glimpse into the lives of two friends and their rocky journey toward self-awareness. Nearly a decade later, Hartley has reunited three of his leads — Fay (Parker Posey), her brother, Simon (James Urbaniak) and her estranged husband, Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) — and thrust them into a tone-deaf espionage thriller that parodies America’s obsessive search for international terrorists but lacks real bite.
Hartley, the darling of the indie scene during the 1990s, has maintained a low profile in recent years, and “Fay Grim” is hardly a triumphant return. With its overcrowded cast of CIA operatives, British secret agents and treacherous assassins, it bears all the standard trappings of a spy caper, save for any sense of rhythm. The principal characters are set in motion, and the body count rises accordingly, but Hartley keeps the material at arm’s length. His sense of ironic detachment undercuts whatever drama lies at the heart of his latest curiosity.
The story is playful but convoluted. At the behest of the U.S. government, Fay scours Europe in search of Henry’s sought-after memoirs, which may contain military secrets invaluable to the Department of Homeland Security. (Either that, or they’re the pornographic ramblings of a self-indulgent hack — even his friends can’t be sure which.) Her wild-goose chase ends in Istanbul, where she finds Henry, ever the international man of mystery, held captive by a notorious Afghan terrorist.
If “Henry Fool” was a semi-serious meditation on art and celebrity, “Fay Grim” focuses on art and its place in a world increasingly consumed by political paranoia. As always, there is a sharp, almost lyrical quality to Hartley’s dialogue, which Fay does her best to defuse. Punctuating her remarks with lazy indifference — a “like” here, an “or something” there — she is scatterbrained and deceptively ditsy, an overwrought damsel in distress who seems curiously disconnected from, well, everything.
Posey has fun with the role; she’s no stranger to physical comedy, and she fleshes out her cartoonish heroine with abandon. Fay scampers from one adventure to the next, melodramatically throwing herself into the arms of whichever man happens to be closest like a modern-day Barbarella. But to what end?
As absurdist comedy, “Fay Grim” is sufficiently far-fetched, but Hartley too often settles for action that he trusts is funny without offering a payoff. As a thriller, the movie is flat and mostly uninvolving, arbitrarily unfolding until, after two meandering hours, it just stops.
In the end, the movie works best as satire — another Hartley specialty — but even satire requires some small emotional investment from an audience. “Fay Grim” demands noneand gets none — and really, what’s the point in that?
Fay Grim *½
Starring Parker Posey, James Urbaniak, Chuck Montgomery, Jeff Goldblum, Liam Aiken
Written and directed by Hal Hartley
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes