It’s too much to expect a heroic final-quarter-Hail-Mary moment for Hal Hartley. Though arguably the most distinctive and promising of the original Sundance kids, he has already spent too many years chasing past glories as his amalgam of Godardian irony and existential burlesque lost all spark, form and purpose. Nevertheless, there’s something heartening about seeing the old gang get back together to close out the unnecessary trilogy of films that began with Henry Fool, his 1997 satire about literary rivalry, quashed ambition and all-American stupidity. Thomas Jay Ryan, Parker Posey, and James Urbaniak all return to their original roles, as does Liam Aiken, who was a mere tyke in the first film but here takes the lead as the eponymous, now 18-year-old protagonist (take that, Boyhood). Out of the Hartley loop since The Book of Life (1998), the once-ubiquitous Martin Donovan is back as well, assuming the role of the priest who raised Ned after the events that led to the incarceration of his mother Fay (Parker). Now a God-fearing young man, Ned sets off on a quest to rid the world of his still-on-the-lam father Henry (Ryan), who’s taken to claiming to be the Devil’s assistant, despite doing nothing more risqué in his latest adventure than copping a feel outside a convenience store and smoking a cigar indoors.
To be fair, Ned Rifle is a slight step up from Fay Grim (2006), a far more ham-fisted attempt to integrate the Henry Fool’s themes with an ungainly strain of post-9/11 paranoia, resulting in a deadpan espionage non-thriller that seemed more of a successor to Amateur (1994). But it’s not good, either. Sporting Robert Smith makeup as a deranged grad student who hopes that Ned will lead her to Henry, Aubrey Plaza mostly seems perplexed as to what she’s doing here, and rightfully so. Whatever Henry may have embodied in younger days, he’s just another windbag now, and the film that Hartley builds around him evaporates on contact.