DVD & Blu-ray Review: Henry Poole is Here (2008)

Overture Films & Anchor Bay Entertainment's
"Modern Day Fable"
Miraculously Materializes on
Blu-ray & DVD on 1/20/09


An Introduction

Although admittedly Henry Poole is Here was one of my least favorite films of 2008 as I didn't quite buy into the contrivances set forth, I definitely admired its intention and great heart in trying to craft a film that would provide hope and encouragement during a dark time, even if the result was less than stellar.

Despite its uneven result and mixed critical and audience reception, this sleeper work garnered enough support from its target demographic which was no doubt bolstered when the film received one of the year's Heartland Truly Moving Picture Awards.

While I still greatly prefer Overture Pictures' more subtle works of positivity and friendship including last year's magnificent The Visitor (one of the very best of '08) and the late '08 and early '09 (depending on your city) offering, Last Chance Harvey (which also received the Heartland Award), the most satisfying element that Poole has going for it is in its terrific portrayal by its leading actor, Luke Wilson.

Always underrated yet able to slip in and out of comedy and drama as he did in the works made with his brother Owen and friend Wes Anderson including Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums-- he keeps the film from sinking as Poole's true anchor and will hopefully impress future directors that there's much more to the handsome Texan than the endless roles as "the boyfriend" which he played in Charlie's Angels, Legally Blonde, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, and countless others.

On behalf of the film's release to DVD and Blu-ray, Anchor Bay Entertainment was kind enough to send both formats my way for a second look. While my response to the film itself remains unchanged, I'll evaluate the technical aspects of the discs following a reprint of my original review below in this two-part post.

I. The Film

Original Theatrical Film Review:
Henry Poole is Here

Mark Pellington

If your house is made of stucco, run like the wind.

After getting his start directing some of the '90s 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 (Curb Your Enthusiasm) 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 (Melinda and Melinda's Radha Mitchell) along with the wearying Esperanza condescend to the audience repeatedly. 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 seems 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 Luke Wilson.

II. The Blu-ray & DVD

As the film is predominantly set in what Henry Poole's press release describes as a "cookie cutter house in a drab, middle-class, L.A. neighborhood," the film's cinematographic color scheme is noticeably muted and dulled on both the DVD and Blu-ray but the Blu's quality is predictably superior, offering excellent flesh tone color (almost too close as we can see every single stubble of hair on Henry's face).

And, since the film's visual look is supposed to be bland overall, there isn't a very large difference between the formats but the sound clarity on the Blu-ray heightens the experience as we hear every subtle effect in the overly quiet film in crystal digital clarity.

While typically the special features offered on both are the same, there are some distinct differences with the two. Boasting a feature-length audio commentary with the director and screenwriter, a fifteen minute making of featurette (which serves as a near love letter to Wilson's blend of Jack Lemmon and Jimmy Stewart like aura), a music video for "All Roads Lead Home," and a theatrical trailer, the Blu-ray additionally offers a second audio commentary with Pellington and cinematographer Eric Schmidt as well as BD-live enabled features such as deleted scenes with optional commentary and more exclusives. However, the DVD does dish up one extra not found on the Blu in the "Henry Poole is Here" music video performed by the film's Myspace.com Song-Writing Contest Winner Ron Irizarry.