Directed by: Mark Pellington (The Mothman Prophecies)
Starring: Luke Wilson, Radha Mitchell, Adriana Barraza, George Lopez, Cheryl Hines, Richard Benjamin
I once thought I saw the face of Phil Rizzuto in a bowl of vegetable soup, but then realized it was merely a singularly unfortunate arrangement of okra—something quickly solved by stirring—and I immediately felt better. With this in mind, I was pretty sure I was going to be resistant to a movie predicated on seeing the face of God on a stained stucco wall—and I wasn’t wrong. I went into the movie as someone who finds religion a 50-50 mix of the fascinating and the indigestible. I came out the same way and have no expectations of encountering a stucco savior any time soon.
What I was wrong about was my preconceived notion that Henry Poole Is Here would be in the nature of the usual run of pushy, preachy hot-gospel filmmaking that shows up every so often finding a ready audience with the already converted, but with almost no one else. There’s little doubt about where the sentiments of Henry Poole lie, but this is a different sort of movie. In fact, it’s almost a throwback to the realm of those inspirational, quasi-mystical Lloyd C. Douglas novels from the 1930s that were adapted for the movies—like Magnificent Obsession, Green Light and Disputed Passage. The Christian message is there, but it’s repackaged in rather vague terms, making it more palatable for the less devout.
None of this is to say that Henry Poole Is Here is either particularly subtle, or even very good. It’s simply that it’s less obnoxious about converting us miserable sinners—and I give it points for that. I’ll also give it credit for being reasonably entertaining in the process. What I can’t say is that it works all that well in terms of emotional resonance—a major problem with a movie aimed more at the heart than the head. There’s naught wrong with soap as long as it touches you, and Henry Poole is too mechanical an exercise for that.
The film centers around Henry Poole (the typically rather bland Luke Wilson), a man who is dying of one of those unnamed Hollywood ailments that allow the sufferer to evidence no external signs of illness. Poor Henry isn’t even afforded a decorous cough—merely an apparent aversion to shaving more than every few days (we appear to miss his shaving days) and a tendency to subsist on a diet of alcohol, frozen pizza and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. (Perhaps he’s dying of Krispy Kreme poisoning.) Also, in Hollywood fashion, he drinks constantly, but is never drunk or hungover. He’s merely in a perpetual state of anger and sadness and wants nothing more than to mope and die in the neighborhood he grew up in. And of course, he’s sufficiently affluent to do this. But then, apart from the nearly blind supermarket cashier Patience (Rachel Seiferth) and real-estate agent Meg (Cheryl Hines, Waitress), everyone in the film seems to be able to sit at home and focus on personal issues. That’s why this is a movie and not life, I guess.
Henry’s problem is that his neighbors won’t leave him alone—especially after super friendly Esperanza (Adriana Barraza, Babel) sees the face of Jesus in a stain on his newly stuccoed backyard wall. Soon others are involved in this “miracle,” and other miracles occur (some more explicable than others). But Henry—though thawing toward his neighbors—steadfastly refuses to accept the idea that the stain is anything but a stain. Presumably, this is because he’s so afraid that it won’t cure him that he won’t let himself entertain the possibility, but since this is never even briefly verbalized, Henry comes off as a bit of a jackass. How it works out is pretty predictable, though a couple of the specifics are admirably quirky.
The film is nearly suffocated in an overbearing score by John Frizzell (The Reaping), when it isn’t awash in soft pop songs (including ones by Bob Dylan and Badly Drawn Boy). Mark Pellington’s direction is strictly functional, but maybe a decoratively bleeding face of God is ho-hum stuff to the guy who had spooky voices emanating from drains in The Mothman Prophecies (2002). This is the kind of material that needs a Frank Borzage or a John M. Stahl to pull it off—and they have the drawback of having been dead for some time now. The performances are more sincere than persuasive, but nothing embarrassing is going on, and that’s something. That may be the best thing to say about the whole film, come to think of it. Rated PG for thematic elements and some language.