From Wong Kar-wai to Quentin Tarantino, Jean-Luc Godard has inspired many major filmmakers, but few of his acolytes are as eager to devote their careers to an endless series of Godardian left turns, dead ends, detours, arty experiments, and weird inside jokes with the audience as Hal Hartley is. Hartley's latest, Fay Grim, piles creative perversities atop one another like Russian nesting dolls. The idiosyncrasies begin with Hartley's choice to make a sequel to Henry Fool in which Thomas Jay Ryan's larger-than-life title character—a charismatic amalgamation of Falstaff and Confederacy Of Dunces' Ignatius J. Reilly—barely turns in a cameo. Ryan is such a spectral yet pervasive presence in Fay Grim that alerting audiences to his appearance would qualify as a spoiler if not for that pesky opening credit, "Thomas Jay Ryan as Henry Fool."
On paper, at least, Fay Grim looks like a relatively commercial proposition. It's a sequel to one of Hartley's most successful films in a popular genre (spy thriller), with movie stars like Jeff Goldblum and Saffron Burrows augmenting the Hartley regulars. But leave it to Hartley to steer in the least commercial direction imaginable. Fay Grim picks up long after the events of Henry Fool: Ryan's big-talker has disappeared, leaving wife Parker Posey with a 14-year-old son who's all too eager to follow in dad's footsteps. Ryan's handwritten "confessions" turn out to be the crucial linchpin in an international game of espionage that sends Posey rocketing across the globe in search of answers.
Fay Grim initially mines ample laughs from the strange juxtaposition of Hartley's deadpan quirks and the high-stakes world of the international thriller. Sadly, there's a thin line between goofing irreverently on the maddeningly convoluted nature of spy thrillers and actually being a muddled mess, and Fay Grim crosses it constantly during its deadly second hour. Ryan's reappearance gives the film a much-needed boost of garrulous energy, but it's too little, too late. As with Godard, there comes a point where the playfulness stops being fun and becomes faintly punishing. Let's just hope Hartley never embraces Marx. Then all will truly be lost.