2021 | R | starring Taryn Manning, Jasmine Burke, Cory Hardrict | directed by Coke Daniels | 1 hr 29 mins |
When a young black couple, Imani (Jasmine Burke) and Malik (Cory Hardrict), move into a middle-class suburban neighborhood it is to the immediate distain of their neighbor Karen Drexler (Taryn Manning), the HOA president who seeks to destroy their lives and the lives of anyone else around them.
Karen is the type of movie that desperately wants to be provocative and keeps tripping over it’s own stupidity. It is so silly that it is almost impossible to take seriously. On a technical level you can see every stud, every cut corner and every budgetary constraint. Early on in Karen, there is a moment that jumps out as a peek behind the curtain to how tiny the budget must have been. We cut to Malik announcing he has just hung up some African art in their new home and then a cut to it hung up as if the art has been there the entire time, untouched, as if at the instruction of the homeowner’s whose house they are filming in to “not touch any of my stuff”. Speaking to the film’s incredible amount of filler, there is a scene where Imani and Malik are trying to have a baby which is conveyed to us with Imani looking at a pregnancy test and saying “It’s negative” and the couple sitting on the bed talking about how disappointed they were and how badly they want a baby. In a movie that wasn’t this dumb, or that had any film literacy, all of this would have been conveyed with looks and silent performances. There are two people in the room and they both want a baby, they would not be re-explaining all of this to each other. This movie doesn’t show, it tells. Over and over.
The the rot – and frankly the so-bad-it’s-good fun – of Coke Daniels’ Karen is at the granular filmmaking level. It sits at that beautiful crossroads of Neil Breen, Tommy Wiseau level of self import sincerity and completely incompetent filmmaking. Like a Neil Breen movie, it’s shot on digital video so it looks like a home movie. Like a Neil Breen movie it looks like it’s budget is so tiny that it’s renting out people’s homes for the production with instructions not to touch or misplace anything in them. The acting is awful all around, the script is over-written and obvious and the thriller beats are laughable and contradictory.
For Karen’s part she’s a complete caricature. She aims her surveillance cameras right at the neighbor’s window and sits in her control room smoking and glaring at them while a light shines behind her as if she’s also watching a film projection. She has a confederate soap dispenser, which Malik picks up and stares at in melodramatic shock before revealing the portrait of Confederate general Daniel Harvey Hill adorning the guest bathroom wall. It’s here where the movie gets so over-the-top that it visibly tries to leech off of the noir horror that Jordan Peele popularized with his conspiracy thriller Get Out. Except this movie actually seems to fetishize black culture in the way Peele was making fun of in Get Out. It tries to paint a picture of a world run by systemic racism while having it’s heroes be uniquely horrified by Karen’s actions.
Karen often tries to have it’s cake and eat it too. In my favorite example, Karen makes a spectacle of herself at the neighbor’s party by saying that if they don’t like it in American they can “go back to Africa”, a phrase that would normally come off incredibly racist, except in this case she’s sitting in a house that is full with African art, with tribal swords on the wall (that figure into the finale, eye-roll), and a host who is literally wearing a Kente African Scarf at the time of the offense. “What makes you think we’re interested in Africa – beyond every single piece of decor in this house?”.
As a thriller, the movie doesn’t work because Karen both wants to make fun of Karen and cast her as a villain, so she is so pathetic and weak that she never seems like a threat. Manning plays her as an irrational, paranoid incompetent who mixes up words and can’t hold a gun straight. Incidentally to the racism, the film piles on all the Karen tropes it can’t, from her demanding the restaurant manager throw out two black guys for laughing to demanding the garbage cans be off the curb before 10 am to calling the cops on 3 teenagers who “left their ID at the house” (which nobody outside of movies actually do). Our heroes even have the help of a civil rights activist who marshals his political power against the unhinged neighbor, so at no point do they seem outmatched and outwitted by her. At no point does their situation feel desperate or out of control or beyond a simple phone call to clear up.
What is even the motive behind making a movie like Karen? At best, it’s an attempt to capitalize on a meme with a studio backing a cast and crew of amaturs hoping they somehow strike social justice gold with a coin purse for a budget. At worst it’s a propaganda film in which the message is so so paramount to everything that nobody up and down the ladder cares if any of it is good, or makes sense, or passes basic believability. That propaganda? To re-invent the “Karen” meme from an entitled upper-class socialite woman with a blonde bob hairstyle who demands to speak to the manager and treats store employees like trash, to one focused around race, that changes the meme enough to remove it from any likeness from actual politicians and women in grocery stores who deputized themselves to lecture people about mask mandates. Yes, when the Karen in Karen says that “bad things happen to those who don’t comply”, she’s shifting the word “comply” from the only meaning we use it for now – coronavirus mandates – to one of racial social imprisonment that nobody uses.
From it’s joke of a premise to Manning’s terrible wig to it’s final hilariously bad trumpet-set monologue reaching out for social change, Karen is an incompetent production. Cynical but not satirical, angry but not enough to say anything new, exploitation but without any blood or genre thrills. And it’s nothing new. It’s a race-swapped Lakeview Terrace, it’s a Rod Serling lecture without a story around it. It’s a witless attempt to wield bad writing, acting, editing and directing as a cinematic sledge hammer to beat us in the head, over and over and over until we comply with it’s messages. I would hate it, if it wasn’t so darn – unintentionally – funny.