The perfect example of that small independent Sundance film that lives or dies on the strength of its performances, Henry Poole Is Here appears to be on life support. It's not that star Luke Wilson is bad; he's just floundering, unable to find a beat on this depressed young man who returns to his old suburban neighborhood to reignite passions he once felt but has inexplicably lost somewhere along the way.
Wilson's Poole is a guy who appears to have given up on life and vice versa, a downer of a dude who has been through bad times and given up hope of getting his zest for living back anytime soon. We would like to root for him, and so would his three new female neighbors: a busybody named Esperanza (Adriana Barraza), who sees the image of Christ in a water stain on the side of his house; the mysterious 8-year-old Millie (Morgan Lily), who hasn't spoken a word since her parents broke up; and Millie's mother, Dawn (Radha Mitchell), who, for not entirely credible reasons, is slowly drawn into Henry's emotionally stunted world.
When Henry is, in the most clichéd of movie conventions, told he has only months, even weeks to live the story takes a couple of incredulous turns that only serve to further distance us from the man and his demons. Suffice it to say his fate revolves around the increasingly popular tourist attraction of the presumed image of Christ in his backyard; his stubborn, even violent, refusal to acknowledge it seems contrived for story purposes. This is a deeply spiritual film with, oddly, no soul.
If the film and Wilson's one-and-a-half-note portrayal of Henry are disappointing, Barraza is not. The Oscar-nominated Mexican co-star of Babel manages to make us believe not only in Esperanza but also in what she sees. Barraza's acting choices are spot on; she takes a character who might not have worked in lesser hands and gives her a wholly original spin.
For those who thought Babel might be the last good acting opportunity in American films for this extraordinary actor, think again, as she manages to make a strong impression even when stuck working with flawed material. Lily, as the little girl of no words, then words, then no words again, is nicely understated; Mitchell as her understanding mother just tends to look perplexed a lot.
Comedian George Lopez wisely undercooks his portrayal of a priest who slowly begins to see the spiritual powers of Esperanza's backyard discovery and offers an unwelcome helping hand to Henry. Curb Your Enthusiasm's Cheryl Hines turns up as a sprightly real estate agent in the film's opening scene but goes AWOL right after the sale.
Henry Poole Is Here is the kind of good-hearted indie enterprise you would like to applaud more enthusiastically, but its drawbacks don't make that easy. Still, with Barraza all is not lost.
Directed by: Mark Pellington
Written by: Albert Torres
Starring: Luke Wilson, Adriana Barraza, Morgan Lily, Radha Mitchell, Cheryl Hines