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Henry Poole is Here (7/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime: 104 minutes.

Movies are great. One thing that I always like is that an ordinary guy will generally meet one of the world’s most beautiful women where most of us dream we might but never do. Here, Henry Poole (Luke Wilson), clearly unhappy, buys a house in a middle-class suburb in Downey, California (actually filmed in La Mirada, but who’s arguing?). On one side of him lives a middle-aged Mexican lady, Esperanza (Adriana Barraza, whom you may remember for her Oscar®-nominated performance in 2006’s “Babel”). But on the other side is Dawn Stupek (Radha Mitchell). If there’s a more beautiful woman in Downey, I don’t believe it. If there’s one in California, she’s in the movies.

Henry buys his house and moves in, telling his agent, Meg Wyatt (Cheryl Hines from HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in a part so small it qualifies as a cameo), and anyone else who will listen that he’s not going to be there long. Clearly something is wrong, but only Father Salazar (comedian George Lopez) challenges him on it.

However, he doesn’t figure on Esperanza, who sees an apparition in a stucco stain on Henry’s wall. Is it or isn’t it? Henry isn’t buying it, but lots of other people do and some inexplicably positive things happen to people who touch it. This leads Henry to furious denunciations of the faithful in general and Esperanza in particular. Father Salazar takes a non committal position, neither embracing the idea, nor disparaging it.

An insightful examination of skepticism vs. religious faith (although Henry’s skepticism goes far beyond being merely agnostic), this is touchingly directed by Mark Pennington, who was deeply affected by the sudden loss of his wife, leaving him with the sole care of their 2-1/2 year old daughter. Knowing that, it’s clear to see the effect this has had on his filmmaking as one of the pivotal characters is Dawn’s little daughter, Millie (Morgan Lily).

Lilly is cute and does a terrific job of acting up until the finale when her appearance is so altered she looks to me like a monster from outer space. She appears like what Rosemary’s Baby might at 3 years-old. It’s such a jarring departure from her appearance throughout the film that it got me to wondering if Pennington gave M. Night Shyamalan or Wes Craven a shot a directing the final scenes.

Despite Lily’s odd appearance at the end, Pennington and Wilson collaborate to make a pretty good black comedy about a religious phenomenon. Although it’s darker than it is funny, there are some pretty good lines. Henry’s role was originally intended for Jim Carrey, but he became unavailable, which was a stroke of real luck for Pennington because Wilson gives an outstanding performance, one I don’t think Carrey could have approached.

Although some may find this slow, I thought it was adequately paced and that the approach to a controversial subject even-handed and interesting.

August 11, 2008