PopMatters (US), September 19, 2011
'Henry's Crime' is a Crime of Omission
by Ben Travers
When it comes to ideas, there are little movies and there are big movies. There are average movies in between without opinions, but I’m a man of extremes. I like quality, small films and courageous considerable movies.
Just last year there were examples of both sizes in varying value; good, bad, great, and infuriating. Cyrus was an ideal little picture. It had heart, personality, and told a moving, private story. Greenberg, meanwhile, was a small independent picture about a singular, reclusive man, but with much grander implications about a lost, lazy generation looking for its purpose.
I thoroughly enjoyed both these films, but not their inferior, if more widely praised, imitators. The Kids Are All Right and The King’s Speech both garnered more than their fair share of accolades. The King’s Speech stole Best Picture thanks to the old fogey voters in the Academy and their admiration for anything easily understood and historically significant. Yet, what no one seemed to point out was the Colin Firth drama was a little movie. It was set on the grand stage of pre-WWII Europe, but it was about a man overcoming a disability.
The connection between the two was as thin as Annette Benning in what would be the 2010 Critic’s Choice Underappreciated Best Picture winner, The Kids Are All Right. Seriously, the amount of praise bestowed on the film should’ve been able to generate more than $20 million at the box office. It was absurd. Two-thirds of a decent flick doesn’t make it great, even with fine performances and a pure heart. I hope for the day where parents are parents no matter the genders and thus loved the direct nature of the couple’s portrayal. They did not end this movie, though. I’m sorry, but it’s weak, easy, and doesn’t finish the arch for more than one of its main characters.
I digress. This, after all, isn’t an article on my beef with the Academy, critics, and the popular opinion. I doubt anyone expected to see last year’s Best Picture winner mentioned in the same article as a Keanu Reeves movie that barely made six figures at the box office. Yet, continuing my streak of disagreeing with the norm, I’m here to tell you Henry’s Crime is just as good of an expenditure of your time and money as the more widely praised films above, and one of the best little movies released this year.
Reeves plays Henry Torne, a married man in Buffalo, New York working as a toll booth operator. Henry is lackadaisical and almost constantly in a fog, even when his wife (Judy Greer) confronts him about having a baby and whether or not he still loves her. Before he can think too hard about either, there’s a knock on his door. A friend, or at least a man he knows, wants him to sub for a sick softball player. In November. Henry goes along anyway, and discovers too late he’s really just a driver for a bank robbery. He gets busted, they don’t, and Henry goes to jail after keeping his mouth shut.
While he’s locked away, two important changes take place. First, he makes a friend. Max Saltzman, a con man who actually likes prison, is the film’s best character. He’s the comic relief, the tough guy, and has the best actor portraying him. James Caan hasn’t always had the best roles since playing Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, but damn if he doesn’t know how to play off our familiarity with the rage-ridden criminal. He still throws a few punches and kicks (no phantom punches this time), but his best deliveries are of the comic variety. Caan is given all the best lines, and comes off even livelier next to the blank-faced Reeves.
The same goes for the (close) second best actor of the cast. Vera Farmiga, who has come on like a force of nature since The Departed, is given plenty of screen time next to the man best known as Neo or “that guy from Speed”. Her character, Julie, is an actress with a truckload of personality but an absence of warmth. She feels removed from the first time we meet her, but it’s an acting choice by Farmiga as well as a small character flaw for Julie, who falls for Henry after hitting him with her car.
The plot twists subtlety, while never straying too far from the second big decision Henry makes while he’s in prison. He wants to rob the bank he was sent to prison for robbing. Only this time, he’s actually going through with it. Henry’s Crime, like most little movies, isn’t actually about the plot hook. It’s about Henry trying to do something, anything with a life he was previously content leaving alone. It starts when he’s sent to prison, moves on to his decision to rob the bank, and ends with a relationship stirring emotions in him he may have never felt before.
Called upon to display this dramatic shift in personalities is the stone-faced veteran Reeves. As a fan of the unfairly maligned movie star, it pains me to admit he’s the weak point. Obviously, the flaw of a fully successful movie can’t be its leading man, so Henry’s Crime won’t be the best little film I see in 2011 (and, having already seen 50/50, I prematurely know it’s not).
It’s still one of the best, though. Reeves is in his element for the first half of the feature. It’s only when he’s called on to express extreme emotion he struggles. He doesn’t completely fail, but it’s almost as though Reeves’ facial muscles just shift a little less than most. You can see him straining, trying, and sometimes succeeding in selling the newfound joy he feels inside. Yet the only real excitement for the audience is watching the actor play a non-actor pretending to be a stage actor. Reeves donning a thick goatee and period garb would be enough to earn a chuckle from the actors’ many detractors, but the film gets the laugh from everyone by showing Henry uncomfortably moving about instead of merely Reeves.
Keanu also shines in a scene where the stage director commands him to bring out his emotions and stop merely reading lines. Is this Reeves responding to his critics? Is he saying with this small role, “Look. I can do this. Just let me try.”? I’m honestly not sure. Those of us who look should see a spark of talent in the pivotal scene even if it fades out soon after.
The treats of this small movie are plentiful, but don’t expect to find any in the special features. There are none – an omission made all the more glaring by an ending that leaves you begging for more from this likable cast of characters. Still, the trouble-free mindset, winning turns from Caan and Farmiga, and near-ideal execution make liking Henry’s Crime an offense worth committing.
There are no extras with this DVD.