Henry Poole is Here

(2008) ** Pg
99 min. Overture Films, MGM Distribution Company. Director: Mark Pellington. Cast: Luke Wilson, Adriana Barraza, Radha Mitchell, Cheryl Hines, George Lopez.

/content/films/3303/4.jpgThe near miss Henry Poole is Here is a sincere attempt at an inspirational, spiritual, life-affirming film. With characters named Esperanza, Patience, and Dawn, call it a fable, call it an allegory, call it a parable: all apply.  But the script by first-timer Albert Torres keeps ambiguous what should perhaps be specific, and specifies what should certainly remain ambiguous. Despite an excellent performance by Luke Wilson and a promising start, Henry Poole is Here ends up an overindulgent misfire.

There are some nicely played laughs at the story’s outset, as Wilson’s Henry moves into a new house and tries to fend off busybodies: his over-eager real estate agent (Cheryl Hines) and his enthusiastically intrusive next-door neighbor Esperanza Martinez (Adriana Barraza of Babel), who arrives with homemade tamales and a lot of questions. Henry's a man guarding a secret and going through what he calls "kind of a phase": lounging around his house, drinking heavily and eating junk food. "Sad and angry," he only wants to be left alone, but that becomes impossible when a stain on the side of his house is identified by Esperanza as the face of Christ. In the premise of a grouch who can't ditch the local holy rollers, there's an opportunity here for a very funny farce or a comedy-drama in the vein of Capra or Sturges, but director Mark Pellington leans toward the maudlin, trite and sentimental when Henry meets his other neighbors: six-year-old mute Millie (adorable Morgan Lily) and her divorcée mother Dawn (radiant Radha Mitchell).

Henry's wall gets Millie talking, a potential "miracle" that Henry greets with healthy skepticism. Esperanza is, of course, a true believer that the image on Henry's wall is the healing face of Jesus (in one of the film's smartest lines, Dawn muses to Henry, "It looks a little bit like you"). "Those without faith sometimes need a little help," says Esperanza, and eventually she appeals to the better angels of Henry's nature. Henry begins to open his heart, most notably to the attractive Dawn, but he remains skeptical even in the "face" of increasingly inexplicable miracles. But Torres' script won't quit, and following Henry's murkily established pursuit of his inner child, we get a wrapup that's at once provocative and pat.

The film's best scenes put Henry and Esperanza toe to toe, either in mutual compassion or spirited debate. Knowing he's on dangerous ground, Torres makes a good effort to balance spirituality (and Esperanza's Christianity) with atheism and agnosticism, or simply to take the edge off his script's philosophizing:

Esperanza: You can't go to the past to fix the present.
Henry: You sound like a fortune cookie.
Esperanza: (Laughs.) Cookies don't talk.

Cookies do talk when Dawn delivers them to Henry, but that's another story. The likeable cast takes the film a long way. Also on hand: George Lopez, very good as a gentle, level-headed priest; Rachel Seiferth as sunny grocery clerk Patience; and Richard Benjamin as a personal advisor of Henry's.

When the film makes its unfortunate shift from provocative comedy to drama, it begins to feel like a series of maudlin music videos interrupted by romance and saccharine uplift. One musical interlude wouldn't invite criticism (though Pellington got his start as a music video director), but several undermine the idea's impact: whole songs play out as we watch the characters roam around, and we're intended to discern and hang on every lyric. It's admirable that Pellington—best known for creepy thrillers—is after something deeper and richer, and it's nice to see him back at work after a horrible personal tragedy. I would say the film’s heart is in the right place, but it’s drifted out onto its sleeve, making this one for the choir and Luke Wilson completists.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 1/20/2009

Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment

Anchor Bay Entertainment gives Henry Poole is Here a very attractive transfer that captures the film's look for home screens. On Blu-ray, the image is especially dynamic, with the clean source allowing for sharp detail and vibrant color unmarred by any digital noise. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is more than up to the task of supporting the film's soundscape, dominated by musical selections that sound full-bodied here.

The special edition disc features a terrific audio commentary with director Mark Pellington and writer Albert Torres. It's a pleasant conversation, with Torres showing genuine interest in Pellington's process. The two elaborate on the project's development, the title and why it was changed, the hugely important role  music played, "the movie you write, the movie you shoot, and the movie you edit," the cast, the dark places of both men that inspired the film, what Jim Carrey contributed, and how Luke Wilson's process was a gift to Pellington. Pellington, in particular, mounts a spirited defense of the film, in answer to its critics. A second audio commentary, with Pellington and Director of Photography Eric Schmidt, puts a greater focus on the film's look and technical elements, and will perhaps appeal more to aspiring filmmakers.

"The Making of Henry Poole Is Here" (15:49, SD) is a pretty standard behind-the-scenes featurette, with Pellington, Torres, Radha Mitchell, producers David Kern and Richard Wright, Cheryl Hines, George Lopez, Luke Wilson, and Adriana Barraza. It covers the appeal to the material, the cast, Pellington's directing style, the principal location, and the cast's and Pellington's hopes for the film's reception.

Twelve "Deleted Scenes" (31:12 with "Play All" option, SD) come with optional audio commentary by Pellington and Torres. You also get the "'All Roads Lead Home' Music Video" (3:34, HD), the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:21, SD), and BD Live access to exclusive deleted scenes, trailers, and more.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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