Henry Poole too shallow for theological deep diving

Published October 1, 2008

The Roman Catholic Church has confirmed a long history of holy apparitions, visions of Jesus or Mary that speak love and peace, usually from the sky. In the comedy Henry Poole Is Here, a middle-aged man with a neck beard is graced with such a blessing. Henry Poole finds Jesus’ face on the stucco wall of his suburban California bungalow. And he is ticked off.

Poole, played by furrow-browed Luke Wilson, has moved to California to escape his demons. His plan to drink, sleep, and eat donuts until he dies is scrapped when a keen neighbour, Esperanza, spots the Christ image in the stucco water stain. Soon crowds of elderly ladies tramp through his backyard, a love interest pops up next door, and Poole
must struggle through his own desire to be healed.

It’s refreshing to watch a movie where a good God intervenes in daily life. This is a silent God, a barely visible bearded Jesus, but he has ever-watchful eyes on Poole’s backyard dissipation: his drunken lounging and irritated conversations with neighbours. This is also a stubborn God who when sprayed with a garden hose only reappears stronger. And much to Poole’s dismay, this God seems to heal people of real physical and emotional problems.

The Christian characters in Henry Poole are likewise refreshing. Apart from the candle-toting pilgrims (targets of tame jokes) two characters are developed beyond stereotypes. Esperanza (a compelling Adriana Barraza) first seems to be a blind believer, but shows the nuances of her faith when she shares a story of loss with Poole. Similarly, Father Salazar, the local priest, seems more interested in connecting with Poole than he is in judging the apparition true or false.

[pullquote]Salazar’s focus is true for all of Henry Poole; since the apparition is believable early on, curiosity about Poole’s personal development propels the movie. The stakes are thus lowered from big questions about faith (does the Christian God exist? What does he communicate through apparitions?) to questions about Poole’s mysterious past, and his future with the pretty single mother next door. The audience is challenged to wonder, will Poole work through his pain and join the community?

Unfortunately, this question produces little dramatic tension. One problem is that director Mark Pellington, best known for his work on music videos, leans too heavily on music to explain character development. Too often Poole is sleeping, eating, or walking alone while the soundtrack swells. This technique somewhat suits the misanthropic Poole, and it showcases artists like Badly Drawn Boy and Bob Dylan. But these sequences slow down the movie, and viewers who aren’t indie music fans might not pick up on (or enjoy) the emotional cues.

There is also little tension in the neighbourhood setting of Henry Poole. The California sun shines every day on the quiet, well-kept suburb, which seems cut off from the wider world. Eventually the characters blend into this predictable, cheery consistency.

Poole’s three main friends all have optimistic names: Esperanza (hope), Patience, and Dawn. All are quick to believe in the stucco Christ, and although they have each experienced sorrow, their suffering is muted, explained with smiles and distanced by time. The only character who actually experiences trauma during the movie is Dawn’s daughter Millie, and her suffering is literally muted (several times she is unable to speak).

When redemption comes to this setting of Henry Poole, it feels cheap. The suffering is light and the healing predictable, even for a comedy. The movie seems afraid to venture deeper and explore the kind of redemption that Christians know is possible: deep suffering can be overcome victoriously through Christ’s power. As a result, Henry Poole’s message on faith is washed out and hard to read, like that stucco water stain that sort of looks like Jesus.

Ali Symons is Web writer for the Communication and Information Resources, General Synod.


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