There are movies about faith, and then there are movies about Faith; Henry Poole Is Here is one of the latter. These films refuse to let their sullen protagonists learn the error of their curmudgeonly ways on their own terms. They're more than happy to irritate the happiness right back into their lives, often at the expense of the audience's cynicism (not to mention gag reflex). I'm all for stories about inspiring people to appreciate life again, but not when they're like Henry Poole Is Here. Melodramatic to the core and hopelessly one-dimensional, this dramedy coyly claims to have no ulterior motives, though there's no mistaking its allegiance to a certain higher power.
The sad sack at the center of this debacle is one Henry Poole, played by Luke Wilson. A recent transplant to a sunny suburban neighborhood, Henry has no intentions of making nice with the quirky cast of characters surrounding him. He's bound and determined to spend the rest of his days chugging booze and eating frozen pizza, but these plans don't last for long. Local busybody Esperanza (Adriana Barraza) noses about Henry's property and comes upon a water stain on the side of his house — a stain that she claims contains the face of Jesus Christ. Henry thinks nothing of it, until Esperanza starts gathering neighbors and hauling in the church to validate the stain as a religious miracle. In the meantime, however, our hero bonds with fellow damaged soul Dawn (Radha Mitchell), and the relationship that blooms between them might just be enough to rescue Henry from his self-imposed exile.
Henry Poole Is Here isn't a Christian film per se, or at least not one in the way that Fireproof and Facing the Giants are. With an impressive cast and an experienced director (Arlington Road's Mark Pellington) at the helm, I looked forward to this picture dealing with the issue of finding faith in a balanced and offbeat manner. But the beginning credits barely stop before Henry Poole shows its true colors and begins preaching the corniest cinematic sermon in a while.
My main beef with the film is that Albert Torres' script leaves zero room for ambiguity; as far as the story's concerned, Henry's stain is a direct communication from God, and that's that. But with strangers invading his property and hassling him to believe in the miracle wall, I found myself siding more with Henry. Who wouldn't want to withdraw from society under circumstances like these? However, the film's lack of a base in reality dictates that Henry be the one with a problem to solve, clutching close this mindset for each of its 99 agonizing minutes.
Henry Poole also claims to be a secular work, when it's so obviously anything but. There's nothing wrong with a film building itself on a religious foundation, as long as it's done right. But Pellington and crew aren't prepared to take on a premise this tricky, so instead they run with a one-sided sense of storytelling that proves to be their undoing. It's a situation in which nobody wins, since the characters are divided into perpetually cranky Henry and the judgmental zealots Pellington wants us to root for. Neither side is given any depth beyond the most simplistic of emotions, and, as a result, the performances are a lot less interesting to absorb. In a rare dramatic turn, I suppose Wilson could've done worse, but it's hard when the script doesn't allow him to be anything more than the gloomiest Gus of all time. Serving as Henry's foil is Barraza's character, a particularly persistent believer who increasingly grates on the nerves with each successive appearance. Most of the supporting players are used as pit stops on Henry's journey towards conversion, though Mitchell's Dawn and a priest played by George Lopez do emerge as the film's lone voices of reason.
Every year, I hope to see a film with Christian overtones convey such themes without making the characters who support them look like a bunch of cultish nutbags. God is a worthy topic that cinema all too often tends to ignore. But if the likes of Henry Poole Is Here are what manages to get made, then my prayers are a long way from being answered.