There are three reasons to see "Henry's Crime."
1) As almost everyone knows, it was filmed, in part, in Buffalo -- not all that much of it, actually, but enough so that people can get whatever pleasure there is in visual familiarity on a movie screen.
2) Vera Farmiga.
3) James Caan.
It's pleasant for those of us who have been watching Keanu Reeves in movies since his "Bill and Ted" days to see him playing an unmistakable adult, although it might have been nice at times to see him to do it a bit less woodenly under these circumstances. (Acting is what you call it when you look stoic and resolute. Bad acting is what you call it when you're counting on your handsome profile to make you seem stoic and resolute.)
But it takes a rather long time for "Henry's Crime" to be anything other than a loser of a film about losers.
It doesn't help that it comes close to being the ugliest major film ever made here. It was filmed during cold, gray weather, and it looks it. Nor did anyone spend a lot of money on extras, so the city looks depressingly -- and unnecessarily if you ask me -- underpopulated.
Part of that is the city's own fault. If you're telling a story that depends greatly on a scene where Vera Farmiga accidentally runs her car into Reeves outside the Buffalo Savings Bank, it would have helped if the city itself hadn't depopulated downtown Main Street by declaring it traffic-free. But that's a subject for another time.
So, for all the familiarity of some Buffalo locations, I just don't see "Henry's Crime" warming any hearts with its Buffalo-ness -- not unless you treasure the city most when it's coldest and grayest and we're most happy to be indoors.
So without a lead actor who grabs your attention or a setting to lighten your heart, you're left with Vera Farmiga and James Caan to keep things afloat. And, bless them both, they do, especially Farmiga, who now has a history of being one of the best things in almost every movie she's in. "Up in the Air" got her an Oscar nomination; you wouldn't want to subtract her from Scorsese's "The Departed," either.
In "Henry's Crime," she plays a Buffalo actress whose career is just a few minutes away from timing out. She appears in television commercials for something cleverly mythical called the "Buffalotto" (a local Yolanda Vega, if you will) and, at night, rehearses Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" with a temperamental Russian director in a theater that really should have been Shea's. Instead, they filmed that stuff in Tarrytown. Go figure.
It's the tale of Henry Korn (Reeves), though, that we're here for.
Henry is a Thruway toll taker who, in short order, loses his wife and his freedom when some ratty friends (Fisher Stevens at his rattiest) swindle him into being a driver for a botched holdup of Buffalo Savings Bank.
Wham, just like that he's in the slammer with a wise old cellmate named Max (Caan), who has become, over a 23-year prison term, so institutionalized that he doesn't even try for parole. "It's easy livin' here," says Max. "All you gotta do is show up, and they even do that for you."
"We never fulfilled our potential," says Max with the kind of graceful mix of absurdity and melancholy the whole movie would have had if it were better. "The real crime is not committing to your dream."
So far, everything other than Max has been leaden whimsy.
When Henry leaves prison, he discovers that his wife has fallen in love with a fellow in the Korean kitchenware business. Farmiga's car accidentally hits Henry outside the gold-domed bank he's going to case and some energy enters the tale through the side door.
"You idiot," screams Farmiga at Reeves and, at long last, we've got a movie rather than the most inept travelogue tour of Buffalo seen since Vincent Gallo was in town.
It turns out that Farmiga is appearing in "The Cherry Orchard" in a theater across from the bank. It also turns out that Henry, having done time for a crime he never committed, decides to do it for real.
How? By getting his first acting gig ever in that Chekhov production and burrowing a tunnel from the theater to the bank across the street. To do that, he convinces his old friend Max to take a shot at the outside world and actually get a long-overdue parole.
Farmiga, playing a semi-crummy actress, is even more attuned than Caan to how good this movie might have been. It's her character's last play in Buffalo, you see. "I don't just wanna be good, I wanna be great. And I don't just want to be great in Buffalo."
She and Reeves get into a fictional romance that looks as cold and gray most of the time as the city itself, despite all of Farmiga's admirable efforts.
Director Malcolm Venville finally gets the movie going with a counterpoint of bad Chekhov, indifferent underground caper-film digging (Woody Allen did it better and funnier in "Small Time Crooks"), semi-light romance and Max's world-weary wisecracks and apothegms -- until it all ends badly with the kind of screwball logic that really demanded someone else in the director's chair.
Buffalo and Keanu Reeves won't get you through "Henry's Crime" happily, but Farmiga and Caan just might make you come close.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Keanu Reeves, Vera Farmiga, James Caan, Fisher Stevens, Currie Graham and Bill Duke in Malcolm Venville's caper comedy filmed, in part, in Buffalo.
Rated PG-13; opening Friday in area theaters.