Breaking point

Pub date April 12, 2011
SectionFilm Review

FILM When erstwhile Hitchcock (1948’s Rope, 1951’s Strangers on a Train) protagonist Farley Granger died last month, obituaries kindly forgot that hitherto he’d been judged as a limited-range pretty boy luckily cast in a few iconic films.

Beauty alone certainly can get you pretty far in Hollywood, now as then. But Granger’s big-lashed, puppy-eyed, dark-haired hunk had charms not strictly visual, notably a mile-wide vulnerability streak poignant in classic noir films like 1949’s They Live By Night and 1950’s Edge of Doom. He wasn’t that impressive an actor, or even an imposing personality like many golden age stars. But he communicated an attractive, soulful decency.

Similarly positioned is Keanu Reeves, who has managed a longer mainstream Hollywood ride while seldom escaping the perception that he hugely lucked out. He’s one of those actors spectacularly franchise-wealthy — due to those Matrix movies wherein his usual baffled solemnity was ideal — yet whom the public otherwise feels scant evident loyalty toward, and producers don’t know what to do with. Now that he’s aging out of his looks, can he transform into a character actor à la the similarly problematic Kevin Costner?

Maybe. Reeves played charming suitors in Something’s Gotta Give (2003) and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009), both very much supporting roles. He seems increasingly interested in indie films, which he surely doesn’t need to pay the rent. They generally suit him more than the myriad large-scale fantasy, action, or romantic vehicles that followed The Matrix (1999) and Speed (1994).

He’s certainly the best reason to see Henry’s Crime, a pleasant, middling, retro crime caper costarring frequently better actors at dimmer wattage than usual. Although uneven, Reeves still offers a turn equal to (if quite different from) his personal bests: as the second half of a stoner-goofball team in the Bill and Ted movies, and as Siddhartha in the good parts of Bertolucci’s silly Little Buddha (1993), which fully tapped a nirvanic tranquility behind his screen passivity.

Henry’s Crime is an old hat out of the Damon Runyon trunk, in which lovable crooks mix it up with hoity theatrical types and nobody gets hurt except (barely) the really bad guys. James Caan — who starred in similar enterprises during their post-The Sting heyday, particularly 1976’s excessively dissed Harry and Walter Go To New York — plays the veteran convict-conman who schools Reeves’ hapless Buffalo, N.Y., toll-taker Henry after our hero is slammer-thrown for an armed robbery he didn’t know he was embroiled in until it was over.

Upon release, Henry discovers the targeted bank and nearby theater had a Prohibition-era secret tunnel between them. Having already done the time, he figures he might as well do the crime by finishing the aborted bank job for real. He enlists local stage diva Julie (Vera Farmiga) as well as Caan’s parole-coaxed Max. Resulting wacky hijinks render Max a theater “volunteer” and Henry as Julie’s Cherry Orchard costar, all so they can access the walled-up passageway to the bank vault.

Much of this is ridiculous, of course, and not intentionally so. We can’t believe Henry/Reeves is a stage “natural,” for Chekhov or anything else (despite Mr. Ted having played Hamlet in 1995 Winnipeg). Caan and a solid support cast hit predictable notes; romantic interest Farmiga is atypically shallow in her admittedly stereotypical role. Yet her superior thespian chops seem to stir something in Reeves, who remains wooden at times but also flags a relaxed sweetness in their scenes and elsewhere. The climax is classic movies-getting-how-theater-works-wrong. But its contrivance functions to some extent because the lead actor convinces us it should.

Reeves is getting a tad jowly now, physique likewise surrendering to gravity. This could be great for him: he’s made his money already, maybe he can now surrender to being something more-less-other than a box-office behemoth. Costner managed it with The Upside of Anger (2005) and The Company Men (2010), while still playing the occasional lead (albeit in flops). The critical success he’s had as middle-aged losers after a run of critically disclaimed variably-superheroes could be Ted-slash-Neo’s own, if he’s willing to surrender glamour that much. He’d hardly be the first huge movie star to finally get some respect thataway. But he might be the (still) cutest.


HENRY’S CRIME opens Fri/15 in Bay Area theaters.