I’m sympathetic to the purpose of “Henry Poole Is Here,” just not receptive to the filmmaking on display. A grossly obvious take on the draining push and pull of faith, the picture is warm to the touch, just not digestible or, ultimately, meaningful.
Returning to his childhood neighborhood to drown his profound depression in booze and frozen pizza, Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) isn’t worried about long-term housing difficulties. When his nosy neighbor, Esperanza (Adriana Barraza, “Babel”), spies the image of Jesus in a water stain on Henry’s home, she sends the block into hysterics, insisting that Henry allow the public access to his backyard to be blessed. Fiercely skeptical of the stain’s power, Henry’s faith is tested when small miracles begin to occur around town, leading Henry to reconsider his own desperate life, pushing him into the comforting arms of his single mother neighbor, Dawn (Radha Mitchell).
Belief, and all of its infuriating complexities, is flattened out for general consumption in “Henry Poole.” There’s little doubt that director Mark Pellington (“Arlington Road,” “The Mothman Prophecies”) means well with this modest suburban fable, trying to decipher the nature of miracles through the tale of man at the end of his rope, suffering from an unseen force that’s turned him into a disbeliever, fearful of religious opportunism and the spoilage of his poetic misery. It’s a potentially intriguing character study neutered by Pellington’s smothering sympathies. The director wants to hug the world with this feature, but it’s a suffocating Baby Huey grip, not the preferred quaking-with-tears hold.
It pains me to admit discomfort with “Henry Poole.” The film offers kind messages of communication and community spirit, searching for a manner to speak about faith through the tightly-knotted fears of the characters. It’s a gentle excursion into the art of healing through compassion, yet Pellington overcooks the tone, eventually dropping anchor in melodrama. However, the early going of the film is a tender affair, nursing Henry’s internal conflict without tripping over itself. Poole is introduced as a shaken man lumbering through his final act, but ready and willing to express himself to the right soul. The first half of the movie (shot with superb natural light beauty by Eric Schmidt) stays captivatingly mysterious and rightfully itchy as Poole is confronted with this alleged sign of religious intervention.
Once Poole begins to challenge his hardened exterior, the film leaps to pluck heartstrings, introducing blaring sentimentality into the film through watery-eyed takes and extended, bizarre montages. It’s all intended to lift the spirit, but Pellington doesn’t know when to quit. The screenplay by Albert Torres soon slips into preach mode, forcing the actors to feel around for humanity that isn’t there, spitting out clichéd sermons and uneasy dramatic squeaks. “Henry Poole” calcifies into a stiff movie-of-the-week, failing to do justice to Poole’s ailing and the community’s multifaceted religious fervor.
“Henry Poole Is Here” works up a sweat attempting to isolate some heavenly magic, but it suffers from overripe ambitions. It’s pleasant to watch Luke Wilson challenge himself for once in his curious career, but the effort is drowned in this sludgy mediation on faith’s unavoidable shrapnel.