If inciting boredom is the worst sin a filmmaker can commit, being timid is right behind it. Whether I agree with your point of view or not, I want to hear it: You can't cop out with a mealy-mouthed “It's whatever you think it is” or “Multiple interpretations are equally valid.”
That's why I felt let down by “Henry Poole Is Here,” which seriously examines questions of religious faith until it skips away at last from being pinned down.
Director Mark Pellington (who did the similarly vague but more atmospheric “The Mothman Prophecies”) and writer Albert Torres (who makes his debut here) seem to have a point of view – God does miracles for believers – but give themselves an out.
Luke Wilson plays to his strength as the sweetly melancholy title character, who has been diagnosed with a fatal disease that will quickly ravage him. (He doesn't get a second doctor's opinion, and he looks exactly the same months later as on the day he's diagnosed, but those are rookie writing mistakes.)
He moves into a house in his old neighborhood, where a neighbor named Esperanza – yes, Spanish for Hope – sees the face of Christ in Henry's stucco house wall. Soon Esperanza (Adriana Barraza) has summoned her church to test the “blood” dripping from the presumed face to see if it's real, and word of its miraculous healing powers spreads.
The filmmakers first leave doubts about whether people are being cured by the face or merely by their own belief. When the mute little girl next door begins to speak after touching the wall, her mother (Radha Mitchell) is overjoyed – but as she'd stopped speaking by choice when her dad left, this is hardly a miracle.
Then a grocery store clerk with soda-bottle thick glasses comes away from the wall with 20-20 vision, which can be accounted for in no other way. Henry refuses to believe, even as Christians troop to his home, and I had no idea why. Does he think he'll look ridiculous if he gives up his lack of faith? Is he afraid to believe, however tentatively, and then be rejected by God? He persists in stubbornly mocking the faithful, as he starts to fall for his neighbor.
Barraza (an Oscar nominee for “Babel”) and Mitchell bring extra depth to their roles, and former Charlottean Beth Grant plays Esperanza's sidekick. (Nice to see her as a friendly person for a change, after decades of screen crabbiness.) Wilson is more or less a blank slate, on which we can project whatever emotions we like. That approach works well enough with his character – but not, in the end, with the core of the story.
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