In defense of 'Henry Poole is Here'

Pool_lWhen it comes to film, expectations are everything — so you agree, then, that whatever buzz you absorb before going into a theater can greatly affect how you watch something. Yes? Yes.

Take Henry Poole is Here, director Mark Pellington’s dramedy about a guy (Luke Wilson, pictured, along with costar Adriana Barraza) who is having serious issues with death. When I first heard about the movie from Pellington himself in 2007, I thought, here’s a movie I want to see. For starters, I can talk existentialism any day of the week — especially with a cocktail in hand. And secondly, because during our chat, Pellington dropped a personal bomb: In 2004, his wife and mother to his little girl died suddenly. “I went into an abyss for about a year and when I came out, I was looking at everything I had read and was attached to, and it spoke to [me] in the healing process,” Pellington explained. “I wanted to get light out of darkness.”

I’d lost loved ones in my life (most of us have) so I could connect with that — but when the film showed at Sundance earlier this year to mixed reviews (and a few brutal ones), I was almost afraid to see it. I went to the Los Angeles premiere though, and I enjoyed it. Some folks have criticized the film for proselytizing, but I thought it spoke to how we want our lives to be validated in the face of fearing death, and the coping mechanisms we use in dealing with it (be it religion, practical thinking, or just plain shutting down).

Because of my interview with Pellington, I presumably watched the film through a different lens than most critics — which leads me to my question: Does knowing the intentions and the back story of the filmmaker make liking the film any less valid than enjoying it for what it is? While you ponder that question, and hopefully respond on the comments board below, here are three reasons why you might connect with Henry Poole is Here:

1. You feel like a rat in a cage, or a hamster on its wheel — in other words, you’re having an existential crisis. Is this all there is? Is there an afterlife? Will I have any sort of legacy? Should I be doing something else with my life? These questions often circle in your head, and become especially intense after an episode of Celebrity Circus.

2. You can relate to seeing the weeping face of Christ in a waterstain on a stucco wall only because you have a nosy, insistent, crazyCatholic of a tia (in Henry Poole, played brilliantly by Barraza) who sees the Virgin Mary in her toast.

3. If you’re a sucker for Luke Wilson’s puppy-dog eyes, you’re in for a treat: They get a lot of screen time.


Comments (8 total) Add your comment
  • cpreynolds

    I’ve seen the clips and they look pretty good. Unfortunately, movie prices are too steep for us. I’ll have to wait for the DVD.

  • LJ

    I wouldn’t agree that liking a movie more because of its back story is less valid. I would say, however, that a movie that can’t be understood on its own terms, that doesn’t make its intentions known through the movie itself, is going to have a very narrow audience.

  • K

    The backstories absolutely affect the way I see a movie. That’s one of the reasons that made Adrienne Shelley’s Waitress so touching for me personally.

  • Tipper

    Less valid? No. Just different. You might have had a different reaction if you didn’t know the backstory, but so what? You might have had an ever deeper reaction if you yourself had just lost someone. When it comes to art, all that matters is that you *react*, and in this case you liked it. Someone reading a novel and then being disappointed by a movie has the same problem (or they see the movie first, and maybe aren’t disappointed). Or knowing the painter of a piece of art–you’ll like it more. Or favoring an actor in a show, you’ll be predisposed to liking his or her character. There are so many ways that a person is influenced before seeing any form of art, including life experience itself, that to suggest any of it invalidates their reaction to it would be unfair. I guess what I’m saying is, you’re never going to go into a movie with a blank slate–so any opinion you form is always going to be valid.

  • queen of disrepair

    Tipper’s got it right. And, it is also the argument which confounds “artists”-of any form or content – if your audience opinion shows dislike or some other stronger form of negative response, too often the viewer is negated as “not understanding” the concept. Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean I don’t “get it”. I would say though that because I like a certain actor, writer, etc…means I’m more likely to give their work my time (and money) over something or someone that may be unfamiliar.

  • K

    I wrote a paper about this very question in one of my Humanities classes in college. I think know the filmmaker’s intentions definitely changes how you watch and internalize a movie; it can help or hinder it. As a writer, I think knowing such things can definitely improve how a reader is going to feel about a certain scene or characters’ actions. I enjoy it more when a reader reads a chapter or a moments, and interprets it in an entirely different way than it was intentioned. It’s not bad or wrong, it’s just different. To me, movies are like works of art and everyone sees it differently. Sometimes it’s good to know why the artist expressed himself in a certain way, but ultimately, it’s better to leave it to viewers who will have millions of their own answers.

  • Raven_Moon

    I very much want to see this movie. I wish it would come to a theater near me.

  • Kirsten

    I was on the fence about this movie, and I ended up going to see it as a sort of “experiment” after reading this. While knowing the information Vanessa gave definitely impacted how I approached the film, the things I liked I would have liked regardless, and the things that bothered me did the same. I think, perhaps, that I simply had a modicum of insight into WHY the things I didn’t like happened. Knowing intent certainly helps empathy, but I don’t think that it seriously altered what I got out of it experiencing it from my own paradigm.

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