If you’ve seen the trailer for Henry Poole Is Here, then you know Luke Wilson plays the title character, a rumpled misanthrope whose dismal take on life is challenged when a neighbor points to a water stain on the side of his house and calls it Jesus. Strange and maybe even miraculous things start to happen in Henry’s backyard, but he holds tight to his doubt, even though another, much more seductive, neighbor tries to convince him otherwise. Lyrics calling for “something to believe” (care of The Bravery) play as the trailer fades to black.
This may or may not sound like an appealing film, depending on how willing you are to endure an exploration of such ineffable concepts as faith, God, and death. But Henry Poole Is Here doesn’t explore its themes as much as allow them to steamroll any wrinkles of complexity in this “contemporary fable.”
As in his previous films, Arlington Road and The Mothman Prophecies, director Mark Pellington looks to explain the unknown. But in Henry Poole Is Here, he approaches the mystery with a sense of resignation, rather than curiosity. Pellington seems to have become so enamored by the message of his film that he loses any desire to question its inevitability. Of course, there are obstacles in first-time writer Albert Torres’ script, but they are easily resolved, quickly subsumed to the point the movie is trying to drive home--that faith is a powerful and redemptive force.
Henry Poole has reason to be depressed. He has some unnamed illness, something very uncommon in the States, that ravages the body and will kill him... soon. Abandoning his previous life (a montage/flashback shows us it had something to do with a city and a business suit), he moves to his childhood neighborhood, a suburban-California development that could be a time capsule from 1976. Just as the trailer lays out, Henry’s nosy neighbor, named Esperanza (this is a parable, remember), sees the face of Jesus on his stucco. Played by the earnest Adriana Barraza, Esperanza gives the film a dose of honesty whenever she’s onscreen. It isn't that Wilson is unconvincing; he balances a furrowed brow with his own brand of sardonic wit. But the script doesn’t give Henry much room to grow. He’s sad, he’s sad, he’s sad... and then he’s attracted to his neighbor, a doe-eyed beauty peering into his yard through the chain link fence. Because what would a movie about miracles and hope be without a love story? The tellingly named Dawn (Radha Mitchell), whose 6-year-old daughter Millie (Morgan Lily) hasn’t spoken since her father left them more than a year before Poole’s arrival, is the light. And when Millie touches the wall and begins to speak again, you can see Henry’s willpower crumbling.
Given the simplicity and predictability of the script, Pellington would have done best to let the story speak for itself. Perhaps, then, the film would have been quaint but pleasant. Instead, he takes a cue from his background directing music videos and adorns the film with cloying montages and an intrusive soundtrack. When Henry goes searching for the happiness he knew in childhood, he runs (literally) to the concrete riverbed where he escaped his parents’ arguments. Grainy images of a young Henry alternate with scenes of his adult self, and that trailer music wails in the background, reminding us that Henry will eventually believe. And when everything works out, why wouldn’t he? Watching the film, we keep hoping that something will go wrong, something that complicates Henry’s ability to embrace his community’s faith. But, unfortunately, everyone lives happily ever after.