Full of stock characters doing stock things, “Henry Poole Is Here” is the kind of movie where you could read the first 20 pages of the screenplay and accurately predict what will happen in the remaining 80. Not that predictability is a bad thing, necessarily, but if a film can’t be fresh or original, it at least needs to find a new way of presenting the unfresh and unoriginal. This one doesn’t.
Luke Wilson plays the title character, a morose, disheveled man who moves into a Southern California house and tells the Realtor that he’ll pay whatever the asking price is because he “won’t be here for long” anyway. He means here in the world, not here in this house, which I thought was fairly obvious until the film later confirmed Henry had a terminal illness and expected me to be surprised.
Henry’s neighbor, Esperanza (Adriana Barraza), is a devout Catholic whose name means “hope” — there are characters named Patience and Dawn, too, in case you are not bilingual when it comes to rooting out blatant symbolism — and she is overcome with joy when she notices a water stain on the back of Henry’s house that looks to her exactly like Jesus Christ. Surely this is a miracle, a sign from God, a holy apparition! No, says Henry, surely this is a water stain, and what were you doing in my backyard to begin with? Kindly leave me in peace, says Henry.
But Esperanza will have none of that. She brings in an easy-going priest (George Lopez), who apologizes to Henry for Esperanza’s zeal and hedges his bets on whether the water stain is a bona fide miracle. She brings other pilgrims to worship at the stucco altar. She’s a woman of simple but strong faith, while Henry remains unconvinced. Henry is dying, you’ll remember (though he won’t tell anyone), so if there is a God, Henry wants Him to get off the wall and get on the ball.
Meanwhile, Henry’s other neighbors are Dawn (Radha Mitchell) and her 6-year-old daughter Millie (Morgan Lily). Adorable li’l Millie carries around a tape recorder and microphone as a quirky character trait designed to make us say, “Hey, that little girl has a tape recorder and microphone! What an unusual thing that is!” Speaking of shallow plot devices, Millie also hasn’t spoken a word in a year, not since her dad walked out on her and Dawn. Do you think she will speak again before the movie is over??!!
The film was written by first-timer Albert Torres and directed by Mark Pellington (“Arlington Road”), whose vast experience making music videos might explain why “Henry Poole Is Here” is crammed with about a dozen montages of Henry being sad while indie rock songs play on the soundtrack. His style is repetitious in other ways, too. We get scene after scene of people trying to engage Henry in conversation and Henry resisting, and many instances of Henry walking around all sad and mopey and then getting upset when someone points out that he’s sad and mopey. The film feels like a 30-minute story that’s been dragged out to 100.
It’s meant as a light, faith-promoting drama, so it’s a little strange that the character who represents religious faith is such a buttinski. Esperanza keeps barging into Henry’s yard to look at the water stain, she talks down to him because he lacks faith, and she constantly endeavors to speak to him when all he wants is to be left alone. And yet somehow Henry is treated like HE’S the rude one. Are we supposed to accept Esperanza’s pushy behavior as OK?
This is a square, old-fashioned film that promotes a belief in God and miracles without being overly dogmatic about it. (Esperanza is pushy, but she doesn’t do a lot of sermonizing.) That makes it a rarity in Hollywood, and rarer still for premiering at Sundance. It needs so much more than good intentions, though. It needs a story that goes somewhere, and it needs characters who are more likable than Henry, Dawn, and Esperanza. In short, it needs a miracle.
C- (1 hr., 40 min.; )