It's too bad that more movies don't have the courage to explore faith and spirituality in a direct way; studios are usually too worried about appealing to all religions -- and all pocketbooks -- to be very specific about the subject. The other reason is that it's difficult for Hollywood movies to wrap up their neat, bow-tie happy endings with everything resolved, since the idea of faith is based on lack of proof, lack of finality. One of my favorite movies is Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, which uses an unconventional, off-kilter visual scheme to document some exciting, endlessly fascinating arguments: which side is God on and what does He really want with us? The new Henry Poole Is Here bucks the trend with the appearance of a "miracle" in the life of its ordinary, everyday character. Does it raise any interesting, life-changing questions? Sadly, no. The film is too bored and lackadaisical with its subject to change much of anything. It's too uninspired to be inspirational.
Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) is a man with "movie disease." This means that he's going to die, and he'll have absolutely no symptoms until he does. Sometimes "movie disease" comes with a cough, but not this time. Sometimes "movie disease" has a name, like "brain cloud," but not this time. In preparation for the dark day, Henry buys a house in his old neighborhood, loads up on booze, doughnuts and pizza and waits. Meanwhile, his nosy neighbor Esperanza (Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza, from Babel) brings him tamales and pokes around his backyard. (Her late boyfriend used to live in the same house.) She notices that a badly done stucco job has produced a water stain, and that the water stain looks a bit like a familiar guy with a beard. The picture even produces a drop of blood.
Staunchly religious, Esperanza convinces Henry to let the church come and test it as a miracle. Father Salazar (George Lopez) senses something's wrong with the depressed, withdrawn Henry, but screenwriter Albert Torres and director Mark Pellington decide to keep the movie disease secret from us for a while, even though anyone can figure it out (Henry goes for a "routine checkup" early in the film). A little girl, Millie (Morgan Lily), living next door occasionally records Henry's conversations and plays them back -- a kind of surreal effect the first time it happens. Millie is also depressed and withdrawn and doesn't talk. And it happens that Millie's mom is the beautiful and single Dawn (Radha Mitchell). Finally, a grocery clerk named Patience (Rachel Seiferth) with Coke-bottle glasses also tries to cheer up Henry.
For a while Henry yells at people who come in his yard and spends a bit of time trying to scrub the stain off the wall. He argues against the concept of faith once or twice, but does so in a hurtful way, so that we side against him. (He claims that Esperanza is merely looking for someone else to help confirm her shaky beliefs.) Eventually, his persistent, nice neighbors wear him down and he begins acting civil (yes, it's one of those "changes the lives of everyone around him"-type movies). He tentatively asks out Dawn and tells her about his movie disease, but decides that it's not fair to her to come into her life this way. Meanwhile, both Millie and Patience touch the wall and receive miracles. But Henry still doesn't believe. It all leads up to an all-too-neat ending.
I had the feeling -- based on nothing but faith, really -- that Torres' screenplay may once have had some meat to it; it may have gone a little deeper into some of these ideas. And certainly the actors seem more inspired by the material than the finished film would indicate was possible. (Cheryl Hines is wonderful as a real estate agent, who disappears after the first few scenes. I would like to have seen more of her and Lopez's low-key priest.) But it's Pellington who phones the movie in. He seems more interested in rifling through his CD collection for cool music video montages than he does in looking at some of the movie's tougher, more divine themes. (This is Pellington's fourth feature film after a career in making music videos.)As if working from an "indie movie idiot's guide," Pellington alternates between slow motion, time-lapse and that annoying thing wherein the focus kind of softly rolls across the image. While this sometimes stretches out and warps Henry's meaningless, hazily sunny California days, it often has the feel of being random rather than deliberate. For some reason, Pellington opts not to show the picture on the wall until about the halfway point, and then from a long shot; it's a strange payoff, and it doesn't really add anything. Indeed, he's far more willing to concentrate on Wilson's constant two days' growth of beard (kept, improbably, over the course of a week or so) than on Jesus' miracle mug. Worse, Pellington occasionally cuts to a POV shot of the wall itself! Did he actually think about these shots? Is he trying to say that Jesus is watching? If so, he negates everything the film was ever about, and there's no need to ever make any decisions. It's the ultimate act of faithlessness.