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In Nicholas Ray’s smart, haunting 1950 film noir, In a Lonely Place, screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is approached to write a movie adaptation of a long, fatuous, best-selling novel. To spare himself the effort of reading the book, he invites restaurant coat-check attendant Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) to come to his apartment and summarize the plot. Beautiful, dim (and soon doomed) Mildred believes that the novel could provide the basis for “what I call an epic.”

“What do you call an epic?” queries Dix.

“Well, you know,” Mildred enthusiastically replies, “a picture that’s real long and has lots of things going on.”

In Henry Fool’s press material, writer-director-producer Hal Hartley describes his new film as an epic. “‘Epic’ for me means a long story that treats a variety of themes by following the adventures of a particular person or group.” His definition and Mildred’s are nearly identical, but I doubt that the ill-fated check girl would find Henry Fool any less of a chore to sit through than I did.

Hartley’s early features, The Unbelievable Truth (1990), Trust (1991), and Simple Men (1992), trickily balanced flippancy and feeling. Their deadpan jocular surfaces lulled viewers into thinking the filmmaker’s intentions were frivolous until he sprung open trap doors, revealing depths of palpable emotion. His movies offered meaty starring roles to attractive, accomplished young performers (Adrienne Shelley, Robert Burke, Martin Donovan, Karen Sillas); featured strikingly composed, intensely hued camerawork by Michael Spiller; and laid claim to a realm no other director had earmarked: working-class Long Island.

In the past few years, Hartley has attempted to expand his range with Amateur (1994), a paranoid international spy yarn of sorts, and Flirt (1995), a rather academic exercise in which the same tale of infidelity is enacted by three casts in three different countries. In Hartley’s recent efforts, the fusion of comedy and seriousness has felt as forced as a shotgun wedding, and the strain is even more evident in Henry Fool.

Less an epic than a grunge parable, the film focuses on the relationship of garbage man Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) and the enigmatic titular vagabond (Thomas Jay Ryan.) Assumed by some to be retarded, the repressed, stammering Simon, who can barely complete a sentence, lives in a rundown Queens house with his neurotic mother Mary (Maria Porter) and randy sister Fay (Parker Posey). Henry appears one day to rent the Grims’ grim basement apartment. A noisy, nomadic reprobate with a cloudy past, he has served a seven-year jail term for having sex with a 13-year-old girl, Henry is consumed with writing his “confession,” a voluminous memoir that, when completed, he believes, will transform literature and society. He gives uptight Simon a composition book and encourages him to write. The trash man unexpectedly produces a lengthy iambic pentameter poem of such power that it causes a previously mute Vietnamese convenience store clerk to break her lifelong silence and attracts the attention of Camille Paglia (in a meta-parody of her usual self-parody). Hartley’s less-than-subtle dramatic irony is that Henry, the catalyst of Simon’s literary genius, turns out to be lamentably talentless. His disciple wins a Nobel Prize, but he can’t find anyone willing to publish his life’s work, even on the Internet.

Tenuously linked to this central narrative are a supporting ensemble of Hartley eccentrics: a wife-beating lunkhead (Kevin Corrigan) obsessed with campaigning for a reactionary “family values” congressman, an opportunistic publisher (Chuck Montgomery) who markets Simon’s poetry, a skeptical clergyman (Nicholas Hope) who functions as Simon’s hard-nosed financial advisor. Hartley aficionados are hailing Henry Fool as the filmmaker’s most ambitious and affecting effort. They’re half right. This time out, the filmmaker reaches well beyond his grasp, attempting to fuse an arbitrary assortment of themes and tones that stubbornly refuse to cohere. On one level, the film is a brazenly unrealistic fable about art and culture. (We’re asked to believe that Simon composes his book-length poem overnight at the kitchen table. His sister announces her pregnancy and several moments later is the mother of a pre-pubescent son.) Mixed with the high-flown pensees about the creative process (“I refuse to discriminate between modes of knowing”) are factitious passages of cartoonish comedy. A third element in the mix, something new in Hartley’s work, is a preoccupation with excretory fluids and functions reminiscent of early John Waters. These gross-out sequences, Simon’s projectile vomiting on a woman’s bare bum; Henry, in the midst of a violent diarrhea attack, proposing marriage to Fay, counterbalance arid stretches in which nothing of consequence is said or shown. Had one’s appetite not been ruined, these dead spots would provide welcome opportunities to slip away to the concession stand.

For 138 slow-grinding minutes, Hartley’s pretensions, gags, and transgressions bang against each other like bumper cars. The envelope of Spiller’s characteristically masterful photography is frequently all that holds Henry Fool together. The actors are so constrained by their schematic roles that one can barely comment on the quality of their contributions. As Simon, tight-lipped Urbaniak amounts to little more than an Adam’s apple, spectacles, and some moles. Once again, Posey, the good-sport queen of the indies, manages to endure a series of indignities. (In her introductory scene, she bellows, “God, I wanna get fucked!”)

Ryan, making his screen debut, has the showiest role as the bombastic, disreputable Henry, but the details of his performance felt naggingly familiar to me: the shambling walk; the filthy black suit and long, greasy hair; the oblivious popeyes seemingly focused inward. Halfway through the movie, it dawned on me that, no doubt encouraged to do so by Hartley, Ryan was aping Bruno S., the institutionalized outcast whom Werner Herzog chose to play Kaspar Hauser in Every Man for Himself and God Against (aka The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser). In his 1974 masterpiece, Herzog created a heart-rendingly ironic allegory about a visionary outsider’s confrontation with bourgeois social conventions. In Henry Fool, Hartley’s homage to Herzog’s film backfires, reminding us of the distance between a cinematic poem and a picture that’s real long and has lots of things going on.