Fox // 2011 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 7th, 2011
The real crime is not committing to your dreams.
I was approximately one-third of the way through Henry's Crime when I realized that I was watching a screwball comedy. You would think such a thing would be obvious from the start, but then Henry's Crime is a screwball comedy being played at half-speed. The silly screwball plotting is in place, breezy wacky-sax funk is all over the soundtrack, the exaggerated characters are there and the supporting cast is mugging for the camera appropriately, but the whole thing is directed by Malcolm Venville at a plodding, unenthusiastic pace and built around a Keanu Reeves performance so enigmatic that I'm not even convinced the actor knows what he's up to.
Henry Torne (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix) is a nice guy. In fact, in high school he was voted "Most Nicest Guy" by his classmates. He is quiet, and he is married to the increasingly impatient Debbie (Judy Greer, Arrested Development). Debbie wants children, but Henry is more than a little nervous about the notion of being a father. One day, a man (Fisher Stevens, Short Circuit) turns up at Henry's house and asks if Henry could participate in a local softball game. Henry agrees to participate and to drive the man to the game. On the way, the man asks Henry to stop at a nearby bank so the man can get a little money out of the ATM. Henry agrees, and suddenly discovers that he has unwittingly become an accomplice in a bank robbery. He is arrested, but the police say they know he's innocent. All he has to do is tell the truth about what really happened. Henry remains silent, going to prison without a complaint. Debbie leaves him, which he also accepts without complaining. "That's great. I just want you to be happy," he assures her.
It's puzzling behavior, but we assume it must be motivated by Henry's fear of fatherhood. However, Reeves never lets us in on what Henry's thinking, and his behavior only grows more puzzling from there. While in prison, he meets lifetime convict Max Saltzman (James Caan, The Godfather), who is amused by the fact that Henry is serving a prison sentence for something he didn't do. "If you're doing the time, you might as well do the crime," he chuckles. For whatever reason, that cutesy catchphrase sticks with Henry. When he is released from prison, he determines to rob the same local bank he absolutely didn't rob before he was sent to prison. His plan is an exceedingly convoluted affair which involves digging underground tunnels and participating in a community theatre production of a Chekov play.
Henry's Crime offers a great deal of silliness, but it feels surrealistically leaden in Venville's hands. We can envision another film in which some of these colorful characters (Caan's prison-addicted inmate, Stevens' oily crook, Vera Farmiga's frustrated small-time actress with big-time dreams and especially Peter Stormare's thunderous, Dr. Strangelove-esque theatre director) would be a whole lot of fun, but they just seem exasperatingly unlikely in Henry's Crime. The film is earnest (as it should be), but the laid-back tone absolutely kills it. There's the distinct possibility that the filmmakers were attempting some sort of tonal experiment, but it's certainly a failed experiment.
The basic material isn't anything to write home about, but this basic idea (and most of the cast members) could have fared perfectly well in better hands. It's not hard to imagine Woody Allen or The Coen Brothers turning this screenplay into one of their minor pleasures. However, I remain befuddled by the role of Henry. He is the most passive character imaginable; someone whose actions and interests are shaped entirely by the people around him. He meets some prisoners and decides he wants to become a proper criminal. He meets an actress and decides he has a passion for Chekov. The only original decision he makes is the decision to go to jail, and even that's a decision of inaction. The screenplay supplies precious little insight into this character, and Reeves seems determined to reveal even less with his blank slate of a performance.
In general, Reeves is an interesting actor who often proves capable of bringing some engagingly unexpected shades to potentially generic roles. However, he's also a passive actor who tends to fare best when he's given something which pushes him a little bit (I love the soft-spoken actor doing his best Bogart in the flawed but compelling Constantine). In Henry's Crime, Reeves' uninvolved passivity is fatal. With the dull Henry at the center of the proceedings, all of the slapstick plotting falls completely flat. If Our Man Godfrey should be used as a lesson in how to do screwball comedy correctly, Henry's Crime should be similarly employed as a warning about what can happen when the genre is handled incorrectly.
The DVD transfer is adequate, offering sturdy detail and depth. Darker scenes can be a bit murky, but there aren't too many of them. Audio is quite good, and the brassy soundtrack is actually quite appealing (though it's required to do a little too much heavy lifting in terms of underlining laughs). There are no extras included on the disc.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R