If your house is made of stucco, run like the wind.
After getting his start directing some of the '90’s most recognizable and lauded music videos, including Pearl Jam’s controversial MTV award-winning “Jeremy” and U2’s moving “One,” film critics took note of director Mark Pellington with his 1999 paranoid, terrorism chiller Arlington Road starring Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins. In fact, in retrospect it seems all the eerier for having been released just two years before 9/11.
Following up Road with the lukewarm new age thriller The Mothman Prophecies, which pegged him squarely in the same genre territory as M. Night Shyamalan, later Pellington was offered the cruelest twist of fate in his personal life when he unexpectedly lost his beloved wife in 2004. Understandably driven to a deep depression and suffering post-trauma in trying to cope and raise his daughter at the same time, according to journalist John Horn, Pellington “started reexamining screenplays he had earlier considered making, looking for more humanistic stories.”
While it’s an admirable decision and indeed American audiences are hungry for more genuine “people movers” such as The Truman Show, Stranger Than Fiction, and Pleasantville, unfortunately Pellington made a poor choice in source material by committing to the overly preachy, heavy-handed, and condescending Henry Poole Is Here, penned by screenwriter Albert Torres.
Despite this, it benefits greatly from the emotionally effective performance of its lead Luke Wilson, working in a similar vein as his character in The Royal Tenenbaums. As the film opens, Wilson — who serves as Poole’s anchor as the misty-eyed, titular sad puppy — purchases a bland suburban home in Los Angeles from the perpetually sunny realtor played by Cheryl Hines in an upbeat portrayal that seems modeled on a stereotypical combination of cheerleader, Avon lady, dental hygienist, and flight attendant. However, in spite of her pesky perkiness, her brief presence is especially welcome, in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly depressed, unkempt, unshaven, heavy drinking and doughnut-eating Henry Poole who, due to easy to foreshadow circumstances, shares that he isn’t planning on living there long. And indeed Hines is desperately missed after her character vanishes and she’s replaced by Oscar nominated Babel star Adriana Barraza as his well-intentioned busybody neighbor Esperanza, who sets the ridiculous plot in motion when she catches a glimpse of a mysterious water stain amidst the stucco siding of Henry’s house and decides that it is the face of God.
Logically irritated, Poole who is adamant about living his life in solitude, is soon overwhelmed by not only Esperanza’s routine visits but other members of his community and her church (including her priest played by George Lopez) after a drop of what seems to be blood appears in the stucco. And the floodgates open even wider when miraculous events start occurring in his seemingly ordinary neighborhood after people touch his wall. However, whatever one’s individual religious beliefs may be, the film quickly goes from intriguingly quirky to obnoxiously pious. In addition it ridicules those who believe in the importance of science with the incessant phrasing that everything that happens to you is within your control "if you believe" and likewise your misfortune is your own fault if you don't. (Oh yes, try telling that to someone with cancer or using that explanation to sum up the Holocaust or genocide happening around the world.) It's a cruel sentiment to both those who have suffered and a cruel stereotype of the "religious" depicted as Pellington's film gives a bad name to believers and non-believers alike.
This is especially evident as characters given obvious names such as Patience (played by a likable Rachel Seiferth) and Dawn (Radha Mitchell) along with the wearying Esperanza condescend to the audience. And soon it’s hard to tell the characters apart due to the dialogue as they begin delivering their homily-styled speeches, quoting Noam Chomsky and citing Gorbachev. As written, the women all sound like dogmatically propagandist character cut-outs — or worse, door-to-door converters or airport preachers — rather than fully fleshed out human beings, sharing their own experiences about faith or spirituality in a way that seem at all believable, genuine, and/or admirable.
Although he hesitates to call Poole “a religious film,” correctly arguing that “there's a separation for me between religion and spirituality,” unfortunately as a film Poole is unable to convey Pellington’s assertion. Instead, it presents itself as a truly transparent morality tale that would even be a bit too contrived to play as an effective Sunday school lesson, let alone offering a compelling or intriguing enough arc to make a worthwhile, quality mainstream film.
In predictably going from one contrived plot point to the next, Poole manages to provoke shaking heads and unintentional giggles by its complete lack of respect for the audience’s intelligence. Additionally, it forgoes any attempt to legitimately and admirably inspire viewers by constantly telling us what to think and how to feel as if it’s a sermon, instead of the Capraesque work it’s aspiring to be.
A rambling mess of a movie — while it’s painful to criticize a work that came from such a personal place for the talented Pellington — ultimately by forcing us through “therapy” rather than leading us through a journey of humanity, he managed to make something one can’t label religious, spiritual or hopeful but just woefully ill-conceived and nearly unbearable, save for Wilson.