Luke Wilson's acting contributions over the last decade have been unfairly overshadowed in the face of older brother Owen's rise to the A-list. Luke, however, has proven to be the performer with greater range. While Owen has mugged one too many times in mediocre mainstream comedieswhere is the quietly formidable thespian who once starred in 1999's unsettling serial killer drama "The Minus Man?"Luke has journeyed outside of his safety zone to play a number of naturalistic parts in less obvious and commercialized projects. From his memorable turn as a slacker brother facing his mother's mortality in 2005's bittersweet "The Family Stone
" to his strong performance as a married man under attack at an out-of-the-way motel in 2007's crackerjack thriller "Vacancy
," he has been improving with age and making quite a nice filmography for himself in the meantime.
Luke Wilson's latest film, "Henry Poole Is Here," gives him what, quite possibly, could be the most multilayered and poignant role of his career. He's certainly fabulous in it, bringing heartbreakingly understated shades to an imploding title character whose outward disaffected attitude fails to mask his own despair. Diagnosed with a rare fatal disease, Henry Poole moves into a stucco fixer-upper in suburban California and plans to pull a Nicolas Cage in "Leaving Las Vegas" by drinking himself to death. The problem is that he's not a very good alcoholic, tending to pass out before any damage is done.
Henry's plans for solitude go up in smoke when neighborhood lady Esperanza (Adriana Barraza) spots what she believes to be the image of Jesus Christ in a water stain on the outside of his house. Henry sees Esperanza as a quack, and her priest, Father Salazar (George Lopez), is adamant about not jumping to any conclusions. Still, the proof is in the evidence, as a series of unexplainable miracles begin occurringnearly blind teenage grocer Patience (Rachel Seiferth) suddenly regains her vision, and silent neighbor child Millie Stupek (Morgan Lily) opens up and starts talkingfor those that touch the stain. The cure to Henry's own illness might be standing right before him, but in order to take the necessary leap of faith he will first need to come to terms with his memories of a troubled childhood and what he believes to be a doomed new relationship with Millie's mom, the lovely Dawn (Radha Mitchell).
"Henry Poole Is Here" takes a relatively straightforward and simple story and makes the most of it through the basic and truest facets of pure filmmaking. The direction by Mark Pellington (2002's "The Mothman Prophecies
") is sharp and emotionally available without getting too carried away by style. The screenplay by first-timer Albert Torres is clean and thought-provoking while effortlessly juggling an ensemble of lovingly displayed characters. The plot wisely skirts preachy steadfast religion in exchange for exploring one's belief and faithnot in a higher power, per se, but in the very idea that things beyond the realm of natural science are capable of happening. The film does not ride a high horse or judge its characters, making the point that not everything that happens in life is fair and that certain things, like death, are inevitable. Valuing this window of time and making the most of it through the people and things that give him the most joy is Henry's ultimate goalone that he at first does not realize he is reaching for.
Smoothly edited, idyllically photographed by Eric Schmidt, and full of complimentary song usestracks by Eels, Blur, Bob Dylan and Ben Harper, among others, are placed for maximum impactthe picture moves right along with few bumps along the way. If there are debits to be had, it is in the script's negligence of careerssave for Patience, none of the characters are seen going to work or talking about their jobsand in the idealistic treatment of Dawn, who is such a dream woman that it becomes hard to swallow. Nevertheless, Luke Wilson, as Henry, and Radha Mitchell (2007's "Feast of Love
"), a joy as Dawn, are so adorable as an onscreen couple that it doesn't much matter. They are great together and, for once, get along as a couple rather than face tired false crises and cinema-style misunderstandings.
In her first feature since receiving an Oscar nomination, Adriana Barraza (2006's "Babel
") is in fine form as steadfast believer Esperanza, whose conviction in the validity of her claim is unwavering. Barraza gets laughs from her forceful, won't-take-no-for-an-answer personality, but just as easily can touch the viewer, as she does when she discusses losing a loved one and the steps she has taken for herself as a means of moving on. Also standing out is newcomer Rachel Seiferth, as the inquisitive, glasses-wearing Patience. Seiferth has a great, quirky look and an air of vulnerability mixed with optimism that perfectly encapsulates who her character is and where she's coming from.
Anchored with aplomb and an exposed vincibility by Luke Wilson, "Henry Poole Is Here" opens pleasantly enough and closes having made a solidly affecting impact. Its love story between Henry and Dawn is sweetness personified. Its faith-based themes matter-of-factly tackle a loaded subject while leaving the viewer to decide what they believe. And finally, as a character study, the film is adroit and touching; one scene in which Henry returns to a place he used to escape to as a child and remembers back on his own preadolescence wrings tears out of its piercing portrayal of an adult's acknowledgment that yesteryear can never be returned to. Favoring intelligence, nobility and suggestion over spelling things out, "Henry Poole Is Here" has a welcome indie sensibility that larger studio funding would have likely mucked up. That the film is ultimately not about whether the guy gets the girl, but about whether the guy will be able to make peace with his past and go on to live the life he deserves, is pretty remarkable in itself.