Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reeves, Farmiga & Caan enliven Malcolm Venville & Sacha Gervasi's HENRY'S CRIME

What a leap -- not forward, not backward, but into a very different kind of "crime" movie --for director Malcolm Venville, moving from last year's bloody, crazy, riveting and darkly hilarious 44 Inch Chest to this year's delicious, deadpan, sweet little caper, HENRY'S CRIME. While both movies work exceedingly well, at first glance they could hardly be less alike, for their milieu and characters seem light years apart. Yet both come from highly intelligent scripts that offer all the surface fun necessary for an audience to enjoy itself, while providing a deeper theme: a man struggling to find himself, his place in the world, and his proper relationship to his woman.

TrustMovies likes both of Mr. Venville's films equally well, though he admits that, were no name attached as director, he'd never have guessed that the same fellow made them. The filmmaker, shown at right, has certainly served his writers well, finding the correct "look" and the proper pacing, and drawing finely shaded performances from every cast member. (This time his script is by Sacha Gervasi -- the director of the documentary Anvil! -- and David N. White.) Yet marketing the man's work seems problematic. 44 Inch Chest, which did not set the box-office wickets afire, was so much more than a mere jealous-husband crime story, and now Henry's Crime -- which conflates Chekhov's Cherry Orchard with a bank job -- proves even more difficult. Just look at the silly poster for the film (above). Leaving out the ridiculously sentimental tag line (Please, could we give "our dreams" a moratorium?), if you must explain everything (with arrows, yet!) -- theater, bank, the diva, the nice guy, the con -- you're in deep shit, marketing-wise.

So what is Henry's crime? Well, there's a real one, another real one -- and one that's but a metaphor. Yikes, symbolism? Don't be scared: Just engage with the plot, which is ripe, ready and lots of fun. Featuring some notable coincidences, used with the kind of sprightly sense that romantic comedy (which this film is) demands, the movie features an average-Joe hero named Henry (Keanu Reeves, above) whose journey toward self-discovery begins in prison, where he meets the very odd felon, Max, played by James Caan (below, right), who is as good here -- relaxed, funny, utterly real -- as he has ever been. Remember this performance, please, at awards time.

Later Henry will meet the actress Julie (the wonderful Vera Farmiga, below), who's playing Madame Ranevsky in the Chekhov play, and before long we're hearing and seeing Keanu Reeves doing Chekhov  -- and what intelligent person, pray tell, is going to pass up that opportunity. After his excellent stint in last year's The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and now this role (not to mention the preview he was giving us a few years back in Something Gotta Give and Thumbsucker), I believe we are seeing the resurgence of Mr. Reeves.

Casting him as Henry is very nearly a stroke of genius, for this character calls for everything that the actor always provides and for which he may be unjustly famous -- the stolidity, lack of expression and kind of goofy grace (really, he's become the middle-aged Clint Eastwood) -- but then forces him to go further, even making sweet fun of what we might have once called his "draw-backs." Watch the scenes in which he is coached in the Chekhovian manner by Farmiga and then by Peter Stormare (simply aces as an Eastern European Chekhov director working in Buffalo!). The actor is literally forced to get better before our very eyes, and he does it. Don't worry, I suspect he will not be playing the Old (or New) Vic anytime soon, but he does what he needs to, and handles it damn well.

Every actor is on his/her mark -- from Danny Hoch to Bill Duke and Judy Greer (above), with Fisher Stevens creating yet another of his sublimely sleazy villains. But it's the unforced charm of the film that finally carries the day. Mr. Venville -- who last time brought us over-the-top, nasty Brits and their criminal milieu, and this time uses an American cast to create a recession-drained USA city -- has come through again.  I can't wait to see what he'll give us next.

Henry's Crime opens this Friday, April 8, in New York City at the Sunshine and Clearview (First & 62nd) cinemas.  The following week it will open in the Los Angeles area, before spreading out across the country in the weeks to come. Click here, then click on ENTER THE SITE, and then click on Showtimes in the drop-down menu to see a complete list of cities, theaters and dates.

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