Beginning with a shot of a chalk-drawn Black Lives Matter sign being washed away by its eponymous busybody and somehow getting less subtle from there, “Karen” lives up — or down, rather — to the expectations set by its infamous trailer, which went viral for all the wrong reasons earlier this summer. From the title (which in recent years has become a pejorative term for entitled white women) to nearly every narrative beat, writer-director Coke Daniels’ satirical thriller offers little in the way of incisive social commentary or thrills.
“She seems nice,” Imani (Jasmine Burke) says to her husband Malik (Cory Hardrict) upon first seeing their new neighbor. She’s proven wrong moments later, when Karen (Taryn Manning) installs a new security camera pointed directly at their home and half-jokingly accuses Malik of casing her house. As the first Black residents of an upscale neighborhood in suburban Atlanta, they weren’t necessarily expecting a red carpet — but neither were they expecting this level of overt hostility. “Wait a minute,” Imani asks after reality sinks in, “We have a white entitled neighbor named … Karen?”
And that, in essence, is the only card this film has up its sleeve: an over-the-top personification of a stereotype rooted in social injustice, which Daniels treats in a semi-comic manner that’s never especially funny (except, on occasion, unintentionally so). “Karen” plays out instead as a parade of clichés that escalate in terms of intensity but not tension. Karen reveals herself as an irredeemable racist the moment we meet her, and so there’s never any depth to her character or the slightest suggestion that Imani and Malik may be projecting.
Manning, who played a not-entirely-dissimilar character to much greater effect on “Orange Is the New Black” and has raised eyebrows for defending Donald Trump, is too constrained by the material to even get meme fodder out of the title role. From filing complaints with restaurant managers to presiding over her HOA with an iron first, there’s truly no aspect of the stereotype she doesn’t embody. Burke and Hardrict fare better, if only just, as Jasmine and Malik are more than walking, talking clichés. Even while braving her way through dialogue so unnatural that comparatively restrained scenes strain credulity, Imani in particular is easy to root for. Burke makes her character feel more authentic than anything else in the film, an unfortunately low bar to clear.
Still, it’s difficult to imagine anyone transcending such on-the-nose material. Perhaps the worst offender is a discussion between Karen and other attendees of her new neighbors’ housewarming party, in which she claims all lives matter, Black people pull the “race card” every time they mention slavery and anyone who doesn’t like it here can “go back” to Africa. That sequence is followed, less than 10 minutes later, by one in which she calls the police on three young Black men walking through the neighborhood. (For added narrative convenience, one of those officers is her equally bigoted brother.) That all of these things occur with alarming frequency is indisputable; that their depiction should be as blunt is questionable.
At times, it feels as though Daniels may be aiming for so-bad-it’s-good and/or cult-classic status, but the histrionics are presented so straightforwardly that “Karen” doesn’t succeed on that level either. Shaky production values — abrupt cuts, image quality that feels more made-for-TV than silver screen — don’t help, but the main culprit is Daniels’ painfully unsubtle script.
Though the release of its trailer a few months back prompted immediate comparisons to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (none of them favorable), it’s the Peele-produced “Candyman” that feels like a more apt point of reference — if only because the two films are being released in consecutive weeks. Nia DaCosta’s transfixing update of the 1992 horror classic touches on such loaded topics as gentrification, police brutality and generational trauma with nuance and aplomb, all while being scary as hell. In that sense, it’s the anti-“Karen”: a film whose name you’ll want to repeat rather than forget.