HENRY’S CRIME is a happy little surprise. It’s not going to make you a better person. It’s not going to open your eyes to anything. It’s not trying to. It is trying to entertain you without insulting your intelligence. There will always be a contingent of people who see Keanu Reeves as little more than one half of Wyld Stallyns. You know if you’re one of them if you smirked or giggled at the thought of a Keanu Reeves movie not insulting your intelligence. More on that later. The beauty of this film is the simplicity of the story and the quiet grace of Malcolm Venville’s staging of it. As he’d done in the recent 44 INCH CHEST Venville shows a keen interest in the decision process of his characters. He also has a rare knack for bringing a melancholy note to comic moments and vice versa. One of Venville’s more evocative touches are moments when he films Henry Torne (Reeves) in confined spaces, or on the inside looking out, as he ponders how to get to that place he’d rather be.
The story opens with Henry working the graveyard shift as a toll booth operator in Buffalo, NY. Before his morning is over, Henry is tricked by friends into driving the getaway car for a bank heist, then abandoned to take the fall. Henry spends the next three years in prison, where his cellmate Max (James Caan, looking very Joe Biden these days) points out the inequity of Henry doing the time without having done the crime. Upon release Henry devises a deceptively simple plan to tunnel into the very same bank through an adjacent theater. You might expect I’d say “from here mayhem and hilarity ensue.” Not so much, and at least in this case, it makes for a better movie.
HENRY’S CRIME has a reasonable share of big laughs, but being in the company of screwball characters who felt like they would be at home in a 1970’s Peter Falk movie, I found myself smiling through nearly the entire film. There are added bonuses, including one of the more engaging opposites attract romantic relationships I’ve seen in quite a while, and a song score comprising tunes from the Daptone Records catalog. Henry inadvertently meets Julie (Vera Farmiga) twice as he plans his crime. First: she damn near runs him over with her car when he is observing the bank. Second: while casing the theater he discovers she is rehearsing Ranyevskaya for an impending production of THE CHERRY ORCHARD. Neither of them has any interest in the other. At Max’s urging Henry pursues the role of Lopahkin to gain access to the dressing room nearest the bank. This places Henry and Julie in close enough quarters that one of them is bound to step in a pile of love. Daptone funk & soul tunes lend a unique and comforting aura to every scene they grace. This music distinguishes the movie, and Henry and Julie’s relationship, from an endless list of films that recycle the same dozen or so Motown standards or nuggets from the Woodstock era. There is nothing about this film that would make you believe it could happen nor is there anything so ridiculous as to strain the suspension of disbelief. What ties together all the tiny gems, be they comedic or romantic or photographic or musical, is that they make the story fun enough that you will want to believe Henry’s scheme just might work.
HENRY’S CRIME is the the first film produced by Keanu Reeves and Stephen Hamel’s Company Films. Henry is more than a role Reeves took for a paycheck, this is a script he developed for a few years, brought to life by a crew he helped to hire. This is his best chance so far to showcase his strengths. Many critics and fans have said that his best roles, SPEED and THE MATRIX cited most frequently, are those that do not require him to speak too often. Some feel his dialog delivery is wooden but this ignores what separates Reeves from current acting styles. Tony Soprano once lamented the loss of “men like Gary Cooper, y’know, the strong silent type.” Keanu Reeves’ best roles are the strong, silent and smart type; men who observe and then do. Henry Torne uses clipped sentences if he speaks in full sentences at all, in contrast to his stage role as Lopahkin, a character who is far more certain about the damage he is willing to cause to get what he wants. If you pay attention to Reeves’ eyes and the way he carries himself (compare Henry withering in a corner in his jail cell to Jack Traven figuring out the bomb under the bus) you will see the dimensions he can bring that are not on the page. THE LAKE HOUSE would never have worked without an actor who could be simultaneously introspective and charming.
One final thought about the man who was Mnemonic. Reeves passed on millions for SPEED 2 because he’d promised to tour with his Dogstar band mates. Maybe he was preserving his artistic integrity, maybe he was showing loyalty to his friends, either way it was a smart move. Where some stars demand only lead roles regardless of how weak the film is, since I LOVE YOU TO DEATH and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING through SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE to THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE, Reeves has frequently taken supporting roles for the opportunity to work with strong casts. Scoff if you must, but few actors work harder to stretch their range, and give the audience our time and money’s worth more than the guy who is one half of Company Films.