Darth Vader. Norman Bates. Hans Gruber. Karen Drexler … but you can just call her Karen.
Yes, the scourge of social media memes now has a feature film all her own, one that doubles as a Black Lives Matter recruitment film.
“Karen” is a B-movie thriller at its core, one that doesn’t have an ounce of fat on its progressive bone. It’s lean and mean when it’s not bordering on camp. The latter falls to “Orange Is the New Black” co-star Taryn Manning, hamming it up as the title villain.
By the time Manning’s face twitches with racist rage you know she’s gunning for a Razzie, not an Oscar.
Imani (Jasmine Burke) and Malik (Corey Hardrict of “The Chi” fame) just moved into an affluent Georgia suburb, their dreams of starting a family coming into sharp focus.
They’re smart, attractive, and deeply in love, and their future is bright enough to require shades.
Then they meet their new white neighbor, Karen Drexler (Manning). She’s prim, proper and impossibly nosy, the very worst kind of neighbor to have. And that’s before she starts referring to “your people” and other wildly offensive terms.
Karen hectors the new couple about HOA rules in between having black diners thrown out of restaurants for laughing too loudly. Oh, and she has a Confederate-themed soap dispenser in her house to match the old time photos of Civil War generals on the walls.
At one point she demands to speak to the manager. Of course.
She’s so Karen it hurts, and “Karen” leans hard into that sentiment. It doesn’t help that Manning looks and sounds like Rachel Dratch of “Saturday Night Live” fame, adding to the film’s campy veneer.
A smarter film might have let Karen grow into her villainy, letting her bigotry simmer until it boiled over in brutal fashion.
She’s a monster from start to finish, which makes the events that follow hopelessly predictable.
Of course Karen has a racist brother who works in law enforcement, a plot device that essentially powers the film’s third act.
Add viral videos, a clumsy discussion on slavery’s fallout and a violent finale with very little tension and you have mediocrity gunning for social justice.
The film is set in Atlanta, a predominantly black city where almost every cop in town is white, apparently. It’s hardly the only detour from the real world, another reason the thrills rarely stick.
Burke and Hardrict, both solid, hit their marks as if appearing in a different film entirely. Their bond is sweet and real, and the arguments that grow from their attempts at parenthood prove sound.
They’re just at odds with the potboiler in play.
“Karen” is never dull, and while that feels like faint praise it isn’t in our woke age. Socially aware films can be dreadful to endure, like the 2020 dud “Antebellum,” an alleged horror film that doubled as a lecture on slavery’s repercussions. “Karen” knows what it is and delivers exactly what viewers expect given its crudely realized trailer.
It’s also detached from reality, especially in the wake of the George Floyd riots. Any hint of racism in public behavior is no longer tolerated. Just ask disgraced country crooner Morgan Wallen, whose career got derailed when he used the “n-word” in private but without malice.
So watching Karen, her racist cop brother and their goon squad behaving as if it’s still the worst of 1950s America lessens the film’s fear factor.
The film opens with a “Black Lives Matter” chalk message being scrubbed off the pavement, but the events play out like they occurred years before BLM’s ascendancy.
And yet “Karen” perfectly captures the progressive paranoia about race relations in 2021 better than most films could. In the “Karen” film universe secret societies exist to punish black Americans while protecting those who rob them of their rights. Police are to be feared at all costs, and the few honest cops are powerless to stop their crooked peers.
The screenplay, from writer/director Coke Daniels, hints at a culture with little tolerance for modern-day Karens, but it also says there’s no escape from them.
Daniels attempts to explain away some of Karen’s bigotry, but the piecemeal back story doesn’t help. What’s potentially fun is how some of the secondary players take notice of Karen being, well, a prototypical Karen.
“But what’s her real name?” Malik’s friend asks at one point, one of several snicker-worthy lines. That kind of meta commentary could have elevated the film to camp status. Too bad the film’s serious messaging won’t allow it.
Another intriguing element brought up and discarded? Karen finds Malik attractive, seeing him as a sexual object but not someone worthy of his humanity.
A few sequences are as amateurish as the worst student film. Consider a throwaway sequence where Karen’s pre-teen daughter, who has a black boyfriend (of course!), helps Imani pick up the trash Momma knocked over before Karen scolds her for helping a (black) neighbor.
The Rev. Al Sharpton might decry the film’s lack of subtlety.
“Karen” wraps with a short but overt lecture about race relations in America today, a wildly unnecessary touch given what we’ve just witnessed.
If you missed the movie’s neon light messaging by then you’ll never get it.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
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