By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 30, 2011)
Keanu Reeves does Chekhov? No, I’m not pitching an idea for an SNL sketch. After all, he has done Shakespeare (in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing, Gus van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and played the lead in a stage version of Hamlet)-so is it such a stretch to see him sporting a goatee and a waistcoat in The Cherry Orchard?
In the quirky indie heist caper Henry’s Crime, he plays a guy who takes a role in a Chekhov play, even though his character is not an actor. I hear you-“Typecasting?” I know that Reeves has his share of detractors, perennially chagrined by his unique ability to remain completely motionless and expressionless for two hours at a stretch. But I have a theory-although his characters appear wooden, they still enjoy a rich” inner life” (you know…like Pinocchio).
One assumes that Henry (Reeves) has some kind of inner life. He seems a likable, easy-going fellow, if a bit…inscrutable. Maybe it’s his job. Working the graveyard shift at a N.Y. Thruway tollbooth would put anybody in semi-comatose state. Nothing fazes the agreeable yet impassive Henry, one way or the other-although he does display a slight twitch when, one morning at breakfast, his wife (Judy Greer) broaches the subject of the couple having a child.
We get the impression that Henry would prefer to be anywhere else but there, at that moment, having that particular conversation. What’s going on? Is this a troubled marriage? Does he love his wife? Is this cipher of a man internally harboring primal doubts? Or…is he suffering from a sudden attack of gas? There’s no way of discerning.
Fate intervenes, when an old high school chum named Eddie (Fisher Stevens) shows up on his doorstep, with a drunken cohort in tow. Both men are dubiously outfitted for baseball. Eddie wants to know if Henry can give them a ride to their “game”. Nothing about this questionable scenario seems to raise red flags for Henry. Even Eddie’s request to stop at the bank “on the way” fails to elicit a raised eyebrow from Henry. Needless to say, the heist goes awry, Henry’s car stalls, his “friends” flee, and guess who ends up holding the bag?
Henry doesn’t rat and takes the fall. At this point, one might surmise that Henry is either some kind of transcendent Zen master…or a clueless moron (not unlike the protagonist of Forrest Gump or Chance the gardener in Being There). Ah, but our little wooden boy is about to meet his Geppetto: Veteran con man Max (James Caan).
Max is one of those oddballs who actually “likes” prison-which is why he has been sabotaging his own parole hearings, so as to continue living on the state’s dime. He becomes a mentor/father figure to Henry, who takes it to heart when Max advises him that he needs to find a Dream, and then pursue it. So what is Henry’s epiphany? Since he’s already done the time, he might as well now do the crime.
Henry gets out of the pen, discovers that his wife has remarried to one of the creeps who set him up, and foments a plan to rob the bank that he originally had no intention of robbing in the first place. While casing the scene, he Meets Cute with an actress (Vera Farmiga) who is working at the theater next door to the bank. Hence, the plot thickens, getting us to that part where Keanu does Chekhov.
There’s a little déjà vu running through this film (the second effort from 44 Inch Chest director Malcolm Venville). Sacha Gervasi and David White’s script may have been “inspired” by some vintage heist flicks; specifically, Alexander Mackendrick’s 1955 comedy The Ladykillers, and Lloyd Bacon’s Larceny, Inc. from 1942 (essentially remade by Woody Allen as Small Time Crooks). While the film has classic screwball tropes, it lacks the pace of Lubitsch or Sturges.
That said, I still found Venville’s film engaging enough. I was reminded of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66; in addition to sharing its filming location, this is another low-key comedy with oddly endearing characters that “sneaks up” on you, especially once you realize how sweet it really is. And there’s no crime in that, is there?