Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Chekhov Caper: Henry’s Crime

The very notion of certain actors playing Chekhov is criminal. Henry Torne is one of them. However, the play is most definitely the thing for this ex-con’s prospective bank job in Malcolm Venville’s Henry’s Crime (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Henry Torne was an ambitionless loser with no future. Then he went to prison. Suckered into driving his dodgy friends to their ill-conceived bank hold-up, Torne did the time for the crime he had no intention of committing. It hardly mattered though. His work as a toll collector was not exactly rewarding and his marriage was slowing dying, thanks to his own neglect. Paroled and divorced, Torne is at loose ends. Wondering to the scene of his non-crime, Torne gets an inspiration: that fateful bank. He also has a somewhat painful “meet-cute” with Julie Ivanova, an aspiring actress rehearsing Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard across the street.

There is something refreshing about Crime’s quiet, understated vibe. Set in Buffalo, it has a legitimate Upstate feel that recalls the small town scenes from Robert Wise’s classic noir Odds Against Tomorrow. Indeed, though they are not actually across the street from one another, the Tarrytown Music Hall and the bank are quite cinematic, giving the film a real sense of place. While Venville’s pacing occasionally flags, the funky R&B soundtrack, culled from the Daptone Records catalog, periodically gives the film a groovy lift.

Frankly, it makes a lot of sense to cast Keanu Reeves as an emotionally frozen prole. If not exactly a picture of chemistry, he and Vera Farmiga make a passable on-screen couple. However, the real charm of the film comes from James Caan and Bill Duke as Saltzman and Frank, the old cats with character.

Unusual among contemporary indie crime dramas, Venville’s film clearly has affection both for the city of Buffalo and Chekhov’s plays. A handsomely produced little caper movie with heart, Crime earns a surprisingly enthusiastic recommendation when it opens this Friday (4/8) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.