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MOVIE REVIEW

Posey makes the most of 'Fay Grim'

Parker Posey, playing the title role in Hal Hartley's 'Fay Grim,' is a American housewife finding a sense of purpose in Europe. Parker Posey, playing the title role in Hal Hartley's "Fay Grim," is a American housewife finding a sense of purpose in Europe. (Magnolia Pictures)

Like normal people, artists can lose their way. The cultural baton gets passed, or maybe their creative juices run dry. When that happens, they tend to revisit their moment of greatest impact: Thus "The Godfather: Part III ," Steely Dan reunion albums, and "Return to Gilligan's Island." The Beatles called it getting back, and it didn't work for them either.

With "Fay Grim ," the gifted, frustrating indie auteur Hal Hartley tries to get back and move forward at the same time. This is how people get whiplash.

The new movie picks up 10 years after his most lauded film, 1997's "Henry Fool ," left off. Hartley carefully reintroduces the characters and their dilemmas: the fraudulent rascal Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan ) is still on the lam in Europe; Simon Grim (James Urbaniak ), the garbageman-turned-Nobel-laureate poet, is in jail for abetting his escape; Fay Grim (Parker Posey ) lives off her brother's royalties while raising Henry's son Ned (Liam Aiken ), a sleepy-eyed malcontent.

It's still not clear why we're here, but OK . Then Hartley dumps everything we knew about these people, switching genres from a small-scale drama of art and morality to an international thriller with global complications that spin off the chart. This is something like setting a sequel to "Little Miss Sunshine " on a submarine and asking the cast to deliver their lines in Esperanto. Why go to the trouble if you're going to start from scratch anyway?

The answer is: Artist's prerogative. Judging from Hartley's last movie, 2005's little-seen futuristic fantasy "The Girl From Monday ," the director has moved from the deadpan suburban miniatures that served him well for so many years to a more ambitious canvas. The problem is that he isn't sure what he wants to paint there.

"Fay Grim" begins with severely off-kilter camera angles as Fay learns that her husband's fabled "Confessions," the dreadful novel he was obsessively writing, is actually a memoir of his years in the CIA, doing nasty things in every foreign hotspot of the last 20 years. Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Tibet -- Henry had a hand in them all. The pope threw a chair at his head once. How this squares with the drunken schlub of "Henry Fool" doesn't bear asking.

Now a former colleague, Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum ), wants the manuscript back and packs Fay off to Europe to collect it. At this point, "Fay Grim" becomes an arthouse espionage movie in which everyone talks in flat, ironic Hartleyese while changing sides every other scene. French bureaucrats, Muslim terrorists, Israeli secret service hit ladies, Estonian stewardesses-turned-strippers-turned-spies -- all troop through a film that exchanges the dry attitude of its director's early work for cluttered incident.

There are pleasures here nevertheless. A subplot in which Simon and Ned investigate the provenance of a small pornographic viewing device that leads to Turkey and possibly to Henry himself has a playful air of discovery. The ghost of Borges and other literary pranksters flit through when someone raises the notion that the "Confessions" might be written in code, with "Paradise Lost " as concordance.

But "Fay Grim" also exudes a sense of exhaustion that wells up out of the film and spills over onto the seats. A paradise has been lost -- maybe it's the old world order, before the events of the last five years, or 30 years, or 100. Whichever, Hartley never is able to take its measure, and its complexities daunt him.

He does dump Fay in the midst of it all -- a naive American out of "The Third Man " -- and watches as she grows in stature and spine. This is a curious role for Posey, lacking the elegant cruelty that's her most natural posture, and it requires her to shift gradually from grumpy passivity to a radiant sense of purpose. She does this so well you don't notice the transformation until it's complete.

Still, to what end? What's Fay committing to? Like Henry, or like the idea of him, the movie's larger point is always receding from sight over the horizon. "Fay Grim" falls victim to its own worried hyperactivity; it shuts you out with chattery paranoia. Hartley wants us to see the big picture, but he forgets we need artists like him to bring it into focus.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

'Related'

Fay Grim

Written and directed by: Hal Hartley

Starring: Parker Posey , Jeff Goldblum , James Urbaniak , Thomas Jay Ryan , Saffron Burrows , Elina Lowensohn

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 118 minutes

Rated: R (language, sexuality)

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