Movie characters so often operate on dime-store psychological motivation that when a movie like Henry’s Crime features less explicable actions, it’s tempting to applaud its inscrutability, its willingness to embrace strange and illogical behavior. But Malcoln Venville’s crime comedy grows its set-up so long and shaggy that it verges on absurdity — the non-comedic kind.
See if this makes sense: Henry (Keanu Reeves) lives in Buffalo and works as a tollbooth operator. He’s led into a brief stint as a getaway driver for his bank-robbing buddy Eddie (Fisher Stevens), under the mistaken impression that he’s driving his friends to a softball game. For some reason, he doesn’t drive away when he figures this out, and for some reason he’s the only one who gets caught, even as the other robbers escape on foot. And for some reason (the phrase “for some reason” comes up a lot when describing this movie), he won’t give up his accidental conspirators, opting instead for silence and a three-year prison term.
At this point, the film has predicated so much on obtuse and unbelievable conceits (like Henry thinking of prison as an escape, which he nonetheless doesn’t like, despite it looking like the most avuncular, relaxed place in the movie) that it has to ease itself out of passive contrivance gradually, moving into the realm of merely somewhat implausible. When Henry gets out of jail, he decides (and I hesitate to use a word that active) to rob the same Buffalo bank for real, enlisting his new con-man buddy Max (James Caan) to help. The bank is next to a local theater, so Henry and Max get involved with a production of The Cherry Orchard as cover while they plan a non-violent heist.
Here the movie finally arrives at a point where the characters don’t appear to be living by rules of an unseen quirky screenplay handbook. Henry meets Julie (Vera Farmiga), an actress desperate to leave Buffalo behind, and they like each other. In a refreshing non-turn, the movie isn’t about Henry’s attempts to deceive Julie, or even about his newfound love of the theater, though he does take a liking to Chekov.
What the movie chooses to be about instead, I am not so sure; the details of the heist are perfunctory and the backstage antics, while amusing, play as an afterthought. But Farmiga, with her ice-blue eyes and offhand disdain, makes Julie the most recognizable human onscreen, and her relationship with Reeves offers respite from the rest of the movie’s wan cuteness: a wary but sweet upstate New York romance.
During these passages, the movie almost threatens to work. Reeves himself, for all of the sniping about his acting abilities, has a peculiar sort of charisma, and his natural reticence (and derided past attempts at Shakespeare) makes him a good fit to play a novice actor discovering his oddball muse. But he doesn’t do well with the movie’s whimsy, and he’s not really built for farce, either; he doesn’t have the heedless energy. The role of Henry, as written, may be too muddled in vagueness to work, but it might’ve stood a chance with a different performing style – perhaps more zippy Kevin Kline than laid-back Keanu.
Really, though, Reeves, Farmiga, and Cann do their best to commit earnestly to material that doesn’t justify their attention. The characters’ motivations make so little sense that they have to keep prompting each other to explain themselves; much of the dialogue consists of variations on the question “huh?” They’re performing Chekov on stage, but unwittingly playing Pirandello on screen: characters in search of an author who will impose a modicum of sense.