By The Playlist | The Playlist April 6, 2011 at 11:02AM
The following review is reprint that originally ran during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.
Let's be frank. The Toronto Intl. Film Festival has an unfortunate penchant for accepting mediocre films because of their marquee-worthy names and "Henry's Crime," is certainly one of those pictures (along with "Passion Play," and "What's Wrong With Virginia," two films that we were duped into seeing only because of the talent involved).
Another hard fact of life we should know well by now: Keanu Reeves is a truly unremarkable actor and should just stick to his action-based instincts that don't call on the actor to deliver anything outside his extremely limited range. That sad truth coupled with conventional, formulaic material and flat direction makes for a largely forgettable film experience.
Colorless and mostly devoid of animated moments, Malcolm Venville's romantic comedy heist film "Henry's Crime" is flat, rote and listless with few peaks and/or valleys (the director's known for the poorly received "44 Inch Chest").
The aforementioned wooden thespian stars as the eponymous Henry, a Buffalo-based tollbooth worker sleepwalking through life. His restless wife (Judy Greer) wants a baby, but Henry — clearly having some kind of existential crisis — doesn't know what he wants out of life. Asked by his wife point blank if he still loves her, Henry can barely muster an authentic answer. Something is troubling this protagonist. And while we only rarely see glimpses of the cause, it seems, much like the picture at hand, he's in desperate need of some kind of inspiration.
Suddenly, in the middle of baby talk over breakfast, two shady friends (Fischer Stevens and Danny Hoch) stop by asking Henry to suit up for a baseball game in the middle of November because one of their men is sick. It's immediately clear that they need a driver for some kind of illegal action, but the dulled-by-life Henry only notices they've pulled up in front of a bank and the car has been hotwired when its too late (by the rule of light comedies we are apparently supposed to suspend our disbelief here).
An adroit bank security man (the great Bill Duke) spots the action going down and stops the duped Henry in the proverbial getaway car at gunpoint. Six months later, well into his three-year sentence for attempted armed robbery, Henry gets a visit from his wife who tells him she's in love and the now-scruffy con seems genuinely content that she's happy. Henry's acclimation to prison is made easy by Max (James Caan in the film's most worthwhile performance) and when he's finally released, the purposeless man still comes to visit the spry old-timer.
Explaining the picture in full is complicated because of all the various elements, but it's hardly dense. Henry soon becomes enamored by local actress Julie (a serviceable Vera Farmiga) and while visiting the local historical theater where's she's performing, comes across a newspaper clipping that reveals the auditorium once had a speakeasy in it during prohibition that was connected to the same bank via a poorly sealed underground tunnel (Peter Stormare plays the angry and perennially unsatisfied theater director with cliched enthusiasm).
Inspired, and feeling like he did the time, so he might as well do the crime, Henry hatches a plot to convince Max — all too content with living in prison, even though he could easily receive parole — to play nice to the review board, be freed, and help him out with his heist plan and thus the thrust of the picture finally comes into play (don't worry, thus far this is all synopsis, first-act stuff).
From there, "Henry's Crime" vacillates between romantic comedy (the Keanu/Farmiga relationship, though she's aloof and icy) and the crime caper, both of which are tethered to the theater where Farmiga's character is acting in Anton Chekov's final play, "The Cherry Orchard" (which acts throughout as a way-too-obvious and spelled-out metaphor for Henry's life as a man who must break free from his past and start a new future).
If Venville nails two things well in the picture they are capturing the bleak and depressing nature of Buffalo that could crush any tollbooth worker (or regular citizen's) soul, and hiring music supervisor Blake Leyh who peppers the film with an awesome vintage soul-funk and afrobeat-laden soundtrack largely delivered by Sharon & The Dap Kings and The Budos Band (two bands that are new, but do an incredibly job of sounding like authentic '70s deep cuts). Sadly, the music doesn't really fit the tone of the picture, but at least good tunes do accompany the action.
Yet another film that will likely have distribution problems unless they can spin Keanu's puzzling and still-somehow-relevant marquee value into a selling point, "Henry's Crime," isn't worthless, just uninteresting, familiar and not particularly special. Reeves developed this one from a script by his pal Sacha Gervasi ("Anvil: The Story of Anvil"). It's a labor of love, not a tentpole and a more "serious" film that the A-lister likes to do in his spare time when not starring in big vehicles like the upcoming "47 Ronin." The actor is a wise individual and this is his way of giving back to the film community, but there's just no denying that, while his heart is in the right place, "Henry's Crime" just does not work on almost every level (minus that soundtrack, which hey, float our way).
While mildly diverting initially, the romcom-cum-crime film doesn't have the goods to sustain its 108 minute running time. Perhaps if another actor, one with serious chops, had taken the lead and a more visionary director, one with an eye for stimuli and pulling great performances out of decent thespians, had been on board, Venville's flick wouldn't be completely flavorless and commonplace, but that point is moot. While not the greatest cinematic trespass committed this festival (and sadly there were lots of them), "Henry's Crime" is a bland and mild offense that should be lumped in with other forgettable misdemeanors not worth doing filmgoing jail time over. [C-]