HENRY POOLE IS HERE — *** — Luke Wilson, Radha Mitchell, Adriana Barraza; rated PG (profanity, slurs, violence, brief drugs)

A few small things here and there — including a rushed and somewhat muddled ending — prevent "Henry Poole Is Here" from being a genuine cinematic miracle.

Still, it is one of the few really appealing features that have come along during this summer's movie dog days. Here's a film that actually tries to tell a story and tries to say something substantive instead of just blowing things up or going for the cheapest joke possible.

Of course, its deliberate pace and low-key combination of comedy, drama and allegorical elements may make a few audiences write it off as either "slow" or "quirky." But the film is worthwhile, and it features what's possibly Luke Wilson's best performance to date.

He stars as the title character, a desperately unhappy man who, for reasons unknown, has recently returned to his California hometown.

A few of Henry's neighbors have tried to welcome him or even befriend him. But he would rather be left alone, to sit in the dark or in his house in an alcohol-induced, self-pitying fog.

That becomes nearly impossible when one neighbor, Esperanza (Adriana Barraza), discovers a water stain on the side of Henry's house that she believes shows the face of Jesus. Even more strangely, the "stain" appears to be bleeding.

Suddenly, disbelieving Henry has people come from miles around to see this "miracle." Even his lovely neighbor, Dawn (Radha Mitchell), and her mute young daughter, Millie (Morgan Lily), appear to be caught up in this frenzy.

This material could have easily gone awry if treated too seriously or too flippantly. But director Mark Pellington and first-time screenwriter Albert Torres refuse to do so. They also refuse to settle the faith and belief debate with easy answers.

And there are some very rewarding small-character moments, such as the developing relationship between Henry and Dawn (Wilson and Mitchell's chemistry is very believable).

As the sweet and patient Esperanza, Barraza steals a couple of scenes, and comedian George Lopez shows up in a strictly dramatic role as a priest. He's quite good, albeit in limited screen time.

"Henry Poole Is Here" is rated PG for scattered profanity (mostly religiously based), a few derogatory slurs, brief, mild violence (a water fight scene), and some brief drug content (hypodermic needles and an intravenous drip). Running time: 99 minutes.


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