Generally, we like movies when they're well-made. We like the performances, or find the direction to be inventive, or get wrapped up in smartly-crafted dialogue. It makes sense, right? When something is made with skill, that's a good thing. Karen is a rare exception to that idea. By every conventional measure, it's terrible. Most of the performances are amateurish. The direction is artless. The screenplay is so on-the-nose that it's sometimes unintentionally funny. Here's the surprise, though: as a crazy, over-the-top, soap opera-ish piece of socio-political exploitation, Karen is entertaining as hell. It's a trash masterpiece.
Taryn Manning plays a wealthy, white, entitled woman named – you guessed it -- Karen. She's a widow living with her two kids in an affluent Atlanta development. Karen is triggered when Malik (Cory Hardrict) and Imani (Jasmine Burke) move in next door. As you've probably guessed, they're Black. When the Homeowner's Association ignores her concerns about allowing people of color on her street, she responds by forcing interactions with the couple. Microaggressions are hurled left and right, as when she comments on how Imani is “slaving away” in the kitchen. When stuff like this doesn't sufficiently disturb them, Karen ups the ante, determined to drive her new neighbors out.
There is not an obvious beat that Karen doesn't hit as hard as possible. She complains to a manager when two African-American men talk loudly in a restaurant. She asks for ID upon spotting three young Black men walking in the neighborhood, then calls the cops, even though one of them lives there. Her bathroom is completely decked out in Confederate memorabilia. She says “all lives matter” during a discussion of the BLM movement. If a real-life Karen has been caught engaging in some sort of offensive, racist behavior, the fictional Karen does it too. Writer/director Coke Daniels has apparently never heard the word “subtlety.” His willingness to include literally every single cringeworthy Karen cliché is almost admirable in its insanity.
The movie isn't done there. When Karen really wants to ramp up her attacks on Malik and Imani, she calls her brother Mike (Roger Dorman) for help. Guess what he is? Go ahead, guess. If you said he's a racist cop, pat yourself on the back! Of course he's a racist cop! Not only that, Mike is all too happy to racially profile Malik. He doesn't even have to pause to think about it. Donny and Marie these two are not.
What makes Karen's uber-contrived nature amusing rather than something you'd want to run screaming from? The answer is Taryn Manning. She's the only cast member who seems to realize what exploitative nonsense the picture is, and her take-it-to-the-max performance is legitimately a sight to behold. Recognizing that these women are essentially buffoons, she plays the character accordingly. In other words, her embodiment of the Karens serves to ridicule their ignorance and misplaced hatred, as well as to make them look like the fools they are.
One could argue that the movie's campiness undermines a serious problem. People of color have been harmed by Karens, after all. Maybe we shouldn't find ourselves amused by stilted racially-charged dialogue and an exaggerated portrayal of a bigoted individual. Karen certainly does think it's making a profound statement about racial intolerance in the United States, as evidenced by a very self-important coda. The statement is something we already know, however. Nothing said here is new, so finding perverse entertainment in an earnest-yet-misguided picture mocking these entitled women offers a bizarre form of catharsis.
Again, Karen is not a “good” movie, but it is definitely a movie you will compulsively watch. It has that gonzo, in-your-face, you-gotta-see-this-to-believe-it appeal.
out of four
Karen is unrated, but contains graphic violence, adult language, drug content, and some sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.