Mark Pellington, the talented director and son of Baltimore Colts linebacker Bill Pellington, once said that if he ever did a film that was "a Baltimore movie" like Barry Levinson's autobiographical films or John Waters' funky slices of Charm City life, it would have to be about preppies misbehaving in the suburbs. (He grew up in Timonium and attended St. Paul's School.) Pellington has made what he says is a personal suburban movie, Henry Poole Is Here, in which the title character returns to the street on which he lived as a boy. But that street is in La Mirada, Calif., and the movie seems personal in the wrong way.
In 2004, Pellington's wife died suddenly of a ruptured colon, leaving him with a 2 1/2-year-old daughter and a grief that he found difficult to shake. "I questioned whether I wanted to live or not," he recently told The New York Times, "because the pain I felt was so severe. I came out on the other side and said, 'Yeah, I'm going to take every day for what it's worth and embrace it, because each one might be the last.' "
The director tries to apply his own hard-earned wisdom to Albert Torres' script about a depressed man who simply wants to be alone until possible divine intervention shakes him into a new appreciation of life. It's a bad fit. Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) isn't bereft over the loss of a spouse; he's immobilized because his doctor (Richard Benjamin) has told him that he has a fatal disease. Resignation is understandable, but it looks as if Henry will die from terminal self-pity.
Then an exuberant neighbor (Adriana Barraza) thinks she sees the face of Jesus in what Henry thought was a water stain on his wall. The repercussions affect everyone, including a fetching single mother (Radha Mitchell), her lovely, troubled daughter (Morgan Lily), who hasn't spoken since her father left them, and a legally blind supermarket checkout girl who hopes to throw away her bottle-bottom glasses.
The way I read the movie, there's no ambiguity: Even if Torres' script doesn't absolutely require you to accept a messianic vision, it equates faith in this film's stain-on-the-wall Jesus with beliefs in love, the preciousness of everyday life and the possibility of miracles. To Pellington's credit, the performers eschew sentimentality. Mitchell, so often cast as a heroic or neurotic presence, gets a chance to show her attractive middle range, and there are sharp, brisk cameos from Cheryl Hines as a real estate agent and Benjamin as Henry's doctor. And there's something tough-minded about Henry's return to the scene of an often-sad childhood; it's as if he's not merely trying to face the past but also to recapture happier experiences he never had.
As he's shown in thrillers such as Arlington Road and The Mothman Prophecies, as well as pioneering music videos (he also co-directed U23D), Pellington is a tiptop craftsman with a gift for atmosphere. In Henry Poole Is Here, he shows his true colors in capturing the comical and oppressive claustrophobia of suburbia. The suburbs may be wide-open spaces compared to cities, but it's harder to stay anonymous behind a neat lawn leading to a picture window, and it's easier to feel both stranded and exposed. When Henry suddenly finds his house the subject of scrutiny, the sequences contain elements of nightmare farce, and Pellington keeps all these scenes tingly and believable.
Maybe Pellington should take a different lesson from Henry Poole: You can go home again. Come back to Baltimore, and make that suburban-preppy movie. Only this time, write your own screenplay.
Henry Poole is Here