Author: Schmader, David
Date published: April 27, 2011
Journal code: STRR
Keanu Reeves Robs a Bank While Going Chekhovian, Morgan Spurlock Sells Out and Goes Nowhere
Executed with even rudimentary skill, the basic mechanics of a bank heist-plotting the job, recruiting the crew, keeping the secret, doing the deed, all on a nerve-racking deadline- will be forever entertaining to behold. I was reminded of this while watching Henry's Crime, a humble little heist flick that's a world away from the hyperactive, POV-bullet-flight fiestas that have recently represented the genre. In place of a Guy Ritchie-esque adrenaline/testosterone tornado, director Malcolm Venville gives us a life-size tale of regular folks plotting to rob a regular old bank, and he pays enough attention to detail to keep a good portion of his film crackling with life, even as things go stupidly wrong.
At the center of the story is Henry (Keanu Reeves), a passive lump of a man inspired to commit a crime by a fluke of fate. The object of his criminal desire: a stately old bank in downtown Buffalo, which Henry plans to loot with the help of a neighborhood chum and a wise old jailbird (Danny Hoch and James Caan, respectively). Things get interesting as the crew locates a prime secret entrance to the bank in the theater across the street, where a semiprofessional theater company is rehearsing a production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. Before long, Henry has finagled his way into the cast and a heist-enabling dressing room, and the overlap of racing-to-opening-night deadlines and execute-an-intricate-bank-robbery deadlines creates a giddy level of suspense that smartly avoids Noises Off-style high jinks in pursuit of small, messy humanity.
Unfortunately, this world of messy humanity is built around a character played by Reeves, whose casting as the bumbling cipher Henry at first plays like a twist on what James Cameron did with Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator: giving a fundamentally stilted performer a context in which his limitations play as strengths. However, the Terminator was a robot, while Reeves's Henry is meant to embody the spiritual stasis of a great Chekhov character, a task for which Reeves is simply not equipped. But he does his best, and he is helpfully surrounded by high-caliber actors, most notably Vera Farmiga, who brings her usual charm and intelligence to the role of the mercurial lead actress in The Cherry Orchard and Henry's would-be love interest.
Nevertheless, Henry's Crime is built to fail. Beyond the decisive limitations of its male lead, the heist plot is clearly doomed, and the movie ends in a less-than-satisfying swamp of incriminating evidence, readily identifiable perpetrators, and laboriously symbolic stage play. But it traipses through some rewarding territory on the way, similar to the Chekhovscented world of 1994's Nobody's Fool, a small universe where one's friends are one's enemies, this one's wife is that one's ex, and you're all in this shit together.
The heist film is given a meta-postmodern- documentary twist in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock sets out to make a documentary about product placement funded entirely by product placement. It's a snappy premise that allows Spurlock to revisit the first-person-immersive style he popularized with 2004's Oscar-nominated Super Size Me in pursuit of a subject that is, in our age of ever more oppressive hidden-in-plain-sight advertising, ripe for exposť. So why does The Greatest Movie Ever Sold feel like a rip-off?
Blame that snappy premise, which undoubtedly opened doors during the film's production, purchase, and release but effectively dooms the film's success as a documentary. Funding his film through product placement proves to be no problem: For much of The Greatest Movie..., we see Spurlock taking meetings with marketing departments, explaining and reexplaining the film's premise, and being met with either polite disdain or, more often, eager acceptance. (Among the film's sponsors are POM Wonderful, JetBlue, Ban deodorant, and the country of Aruba.)
Unfortunately, deeper questions about how such product placement affects the creation of a work of art are leftcompletely unaddressed, thanks to Spurlock's hollow gimmickry. Watching Woody Allen find a way for Diane Keaton to naturally hold forth on the efficacy of Ban deodorant in the middle of Annie Hall would be something to see. But for Spurlock, the issue is resolved by simply turning to the camera and saying, "Buy Ban!" With no artistic vision to uphold, Spurlock's dance with the corporate devil has no stakes. Instead, Spurlock serves up a cutesy, winky "documentary about product placement" that reveals little beyond the fact that product placement exists. It's a drag.
Stay home and have a POM Wonderful instead.