Keanu Reeves and James Caan make a strikingly unusual comedic pair. Both have worked in practically every genre, taking on scores of lead and supporting roles, but they’re categorically different types of actors. In a career spanning 50 years, Caan has been one of the industry’s most inscrutable and gifted journeymen, known for his prolificacy as well as his odd choices. Reeves has been nearly as hard to define, though the discussion in his case leads me to wonder: How did he become such a bankable star? With Malcolm Venville’s Henry’s Crime, Reeves is rebounding from a sacrilegious remake of a classic (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and a trifling internet meme (Sad Keanu) that resulted in his best performance since Thumbsucker. It’s a comeback of sorts and a stab at critical respect. But as the film moves from muted comedy to absurdist romance, Reeves has troubles staying in character, and only Caan can rescue the film from devolving into an abysmal farce.
If Henry’s Crime could be assessed by a psychiatrist, it would probably be diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder. The film’s messages of serendipity and kismet are overt, but the director’s intentions are often unclear or misguided. And while this occasionally pays humorous dividends, it compromises the film’s cohesion. At the outset of the story, Henry (Reeves) is working as a toll collector on a Buffalo expressway and drifting along in a complacent marriage. Reticent and directionless, when he unwittingly becomes party to a botched bank robbery, he seems altogether ambivalent that he’s going to prison. His cellmate Max (Caan), a former grifter who is content with his cloistered existence, presses Henry to consider what he wants in life. Ultimately, Henry’s desires are simple, but he doesn’t realize what they are until he’s released — after a two-year stint that skips by in about 10 minutes. The tone of the film shifts when he gets out, as Henry becomes enamored with Julie (Vera Farmignia), a stage actress performing in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which is playing next door to the bank that sent him to jail. This coincidence sets in motion a series of star-crossed events, compelling Henry to call on Max and hatch a scheme to break into the vault.
Following up his debut feature, the smut-plagued gangster rant 44 Inch Chest, Venville has proven that he’s capable of directing celebrated actors and allowing them room to improvise (sometimes too much room). Caan, in particular, benefits from this approach, and his canny delivery is well-suited to his character. He’s the type of veteran actor who can turn a mediocre script into nuanced comedy, and does so here. In a way, he’s reprising his role from Bottle Rocket, and it’s a welcomed return. Reeves, however, is most effective when he’s not saying anything, and as Henry’s relationship with Julie grows, he becomes more vocal and less credible — it begins to feels like Keanu is playing Keanu. Even when he’s costumed and bearded — as he is when he falls into the role of Lopakhin in the production of The Cherry Orchard — his familiar voice and mannerisms obscure the line between actor and character. Farmignia counters his stilted style by overcompensating, stretching the reflexive concept of her character to its limit. But with her foul-mouthed melodrama, she ends up stealing scenes that were in need of balance and restraint.
Technically, Henry’s Crime is a mess. The relentlessness of its plotting is especially astounding. It’s as if the writer was chiefly concerned with keeping distracted viewers from falling asleep or walking out. (Three minor characters are added to the storyline in the latter half, and the last one just crowds the screen.) There’s also a fair amount of unwarranted profanity, and like many other aspects of the film, I kept asking why. Is it supposed to be a crass screwball comedy? I guess so, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way in the beginning. Still, the film is not a complete waste of time. There are a number of amusing moments, and sometimes there’s value in seeing everything unravel. It’s a disposable curiosity and another sharp left turn for Reeves and Caan. At the very least, you’ll wonder what the screenwriter was thinking when he ended with the line: “Fuck, Henry.”