Incisive, funny, and often oddly affecting, this film proposes that international intrigues result from small minds grappling with gigantic problems. "For my sins," says CIA Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum), "I was sent to the middle of nowhere." The screen then cuts to "Afghanistan 1989," where Fulbright's counterterrorist conniving is bound to be thwarted. It's hard to tell throughout FAY GRIM when -- or if -- Fulbright is ever telling the truth, but this flashback seems particularly cagey, as he's recalling the moment when the United States used a certain self-proclaimed Saudi to undermine Russian efforts in the region. Here, the Arab's name is Jallal Said Khan (Anatole Taubman), but his resemblance to Osama Bin Laden is undeniable. Such blatant name (or face) dropping makes Fay Grim seem more topical than it is. In fact, Hal Hartley's sequel to Henry Fool is less concerned with the details of contemporary spycraft and deception than with broader moral questions. And as untrustworthy and experienced as Agent Fulbright may be, he's no match for Fay (Parker Posey).
The plot gets increasingly intricate, with all kinds of agents and terrorists pretending to be someone else, but Fay remains steadfastly Fay. Fay isn't so naïve as to believe that she'll discover a "truth," but she does want to believe that her efforts aren't in vain. Meanwhile, goodhearted Simon and his earnest publisher, Angus (Chuck Montgomery), pursue Fay, deducing -- rightly, of course, -- that the CIA won't look out for her best interests. Fay Grim reinforces the spies' lack of faith through shadowy flashbacks, dead-ends, and persistently too-clever compositions. But it's not actually cynical. And Fay, so seemingly "grim" and even despairing at first, ends up a model of generosity and probing insight.