Caan laughs it up in "Henry's Crime"
The iconic actor had a blast playing the bombastic funnyman to Keanu Reeves' straight Henry
by Kim Linekin
James Caan didn't need much convincing to make "Henry's Crime," a lighthearted caper starring Keanu Reeves as a bank robber, Vera Farmiga as an actress who becomes his accomplice, and Caan as Reeves's prison cellmate and mentor. The comedy arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival without distribution.
In an interview before the film's premiere, Caan and director Malcolm Venville joke about how much fun they had working on "Henry's Crime" because it wasn't something they had to take deathly seriously.
"He's a bit of a clown," Caan says of Venville, a British advertising and music video director whose first feature was "44 Inch Chest." "He's all right. We ribbed each other. We didn't feel like we were doing 'Gone With the Wind.' I don't mean quality. I always say we weren't curing cancer - we wanted to make an entertaining film. I'll see it tonight but from what I hear, it is entertaining. And if people come out happy, I think we'll feel successful."
Caan recently returned to making films after spending four years on the TV show "Las Vegas." He turns a question about whether he's happy to be back in movies around.
"I was unhappy about having to go on TV," he counters. "But hard times will make a monkey eat red peppers, you understand?"
"I thought I had a lot of money, and then I woke up one morning and I was broke," he continues. "I never thought I'd do [TV], you know. But I have families to take care of - there's an 's' on that - and so I had to do it. But I obviously much prefer film. Obviously. I never wanted to do TV."
Though the 70-year-old actor might need to keep working to support his younger kids, there are limits to the kind of roles he'll accept. "The truth of the matter is, it's not even the paycheque. There's such little good material around. I mean, I get sent some stuff... I just can't whore out enough. I mean, I just can't be that much of a whore to do it. So when ['Henry's Crime'] came along, it was a story, it was about characters, about people. There was a beginning, a middle and an end, you know? It was nice."
Looking back, Caan may be best known for his Oscar-nominated turn as Sonny Corleone in "The Godfather," or as the novelist who gets his ankles broken by an obsessed fan in "Misery." But on the set of "Henry's Crime," the crew embraced him for a decidedly softer film.
"A lot of the crew loved Jimmy, especially for 'Brian's Song,'" Venville says of the classic weepie Caan starred in.
When a more recent performance is mentioned, Caan pretends to bristle. "That's funny. Only young people know me from [that film]. 'Oh, you were in Elf.' I've done eighty-five movies and 'Elf,' they gotta remember."
Caan's wealth of experience means he can shape a role to suit him. He says it took work to get his character in "Henry's Crime" right.
"To be honest, I think it was written more for a Woody Allen kind of guy who spouts philosophy," Caan says. "And I got together with Malcolm and Keanu and everybody [and] I just felt that it would be more interesting if he was a really good con artist... the kind of guy that made his life bulls**tting everybody. With Malcolm's help, I made it more enjoyable for me to play that character and ultimately, thankfully, he agreed. I think it just became a funnier character."
Reeves's character, meanwhile, is the straight man, having been locked away as a toll booth operator for years before finding his true calling. Caan says he bumped up against Reeves's reserve both on and off-screen.
"Keanu and me are like night and day," Caan says. "I'm pretty extroverted and Keanu is a quiet guy. I'm a loud guy, I mean in real life," he laughs. "So that, coupled with the character that he played - it's like we were just pushing him and pushing him."
Venville says that casting Reeves opposite Caan helped the film. "It was very important for the comedy of the film to have Keanu's understated silence. [He's] an interior man, where Jimmy's character was all about the exterior, the dream, the bulls**t and the lies and the imagination."
Venville adds, "Jimmy plays a great liar."
Caan has a good laugh at that. "I practiced for a long time," he says.