The subject matter doesn't make it so, although in its ill-defined musings about the difficulties of making art in a world that doesn't care or understand, the plot is perfect. It's not the cast, though the fact that it features Parker Posey makes Henry Fool the paradigm of the independent film. It's the rhythm: resolutely unhurried, seemingly unintentional, almost careless in the moments it chooses to observe. It's the rhythm of deadpan. Nothing ever happens any faster than anything else, and nothing is presented as if it's more important than anything else--as if it would be uncool to be caught making a point. (If you ascribe to Henry Fool's philosophy, "I refuse to discriminate among modes of knowing," that's what you end up with.) I'm not criticizing the film for being this way. If you like this kind of thing, you'll appreciate Henry Fool because it is absolutely deft at what it does.
One of the most basic plotlines in narrative is "the stranger comes to town," and Hartley builds his film on that foundation. Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) shows up at the home of the geeky, emotionally absent Simon (James Urbaniak) as if out of a dream or fairy tale and rents the apartment in the basement. Henry is writing a multi-volume work he calls The Confessions and gives Simon a notebook and a pencil and advises him--without seeming to care a great deal whether or not Simon follows his advice--to follow suit. Simon does, torturously scratching out his opus with a chewed nub of a golf pencil. It's a long and apparently pornographic poem that causes outrage yet goes on to become a national sensation.
The film is never clear on whether Simon's poem is actually any good or not. Simon doesn't know; his publisher at first rejects it as awful, then says only that it will make everyone a whole lot of money; Simon's sister (Posey) doesn't think much of it. Simon is championed only by Henry, but is Henry any good? Is he a worthy artist, misunderstood by the public, or is he just an irresponsible sex addict? His Confessions are later deemed to be terrible even by Simon.
Another theme centers on Henry's past: He's on parole, having been convicted for statutory rape. He both indulges and resists his worst urges; if there's any suspense in this picture, it's as to whether Henry is ultimately a good or a bad person, or if it's in fact a supremely pointless thing even to be asking such a question.
Henry represents one figure of the artist, insisting he can't work for a living ("my genius will be wasted trying to make ends meet"), yet his insistence on total freedom has not, it seems, produced worthwhile art. The other side of the coin, in which the artist accepts responsibility (Simon, Simon's mother), seems to lead to squelched creativity and clinical depression.
But it's hard to say that there are actually "sides of the coin," just two choices, in Henry Fool. Hartley presents an incrementally shifting series of variations on what might be the right thing to do at any given time, or what might be worthwhile art.
I've gotten bogged down in this quagmire. I'll just nimbly jump to my next topic, which is to say that Henry Fool is frequently quite funny, that if you're easily offended you shouldn't go see it, and that nobody looks any more together while falling apart than does Parker Posey. And Hartley does finally offer a resolution, which can spur coffee-fueled debates for weeks to come.