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‘Karen’ Film Review: Ridiculous Thriller Tackles Racism With the Depth of a Meme

The oddly cast Taryn Manning can’t find a character within the stereotype

A genuine jaw-dropper on multiple levels, Coke Daniels’ “Karen” is a misbegotten thriller about a woman named Karen who actually is a Karen, as defined culturally by her entitlement and racism. Adding to the oddly literal vibe is the fact that she’s played by Taryn Manning, an actress who has weathered accusations of Karen-ism in real life. But perhaps we should just allow the movie’s dialogue to speak for itself: 

“We have a white entitled neighbor named Karen? Oh my goodness, this sounds like something straight out of ‘SNL.'”

“No, it’s more like ‘Black Mirror.'”

Indeed, viewers will be continually pulled between disbelieving laughter and stupefied confusion, making this by far the most trenchant exchange in the whole film. 

When our heroes Imani (Jasmine Burke, “Saints & Sinners”) and Malik (Cory Hardrict, “The Chi”) move into their new suburban Atlanta home, Malik muses, “Who would have thought, us living in a white neighborhood?” This is actually a reasonable sentiment, because the neighborhood in question is prominently named the Harvey Hill Plantation, after a Confederate general and…plantations. 

As such, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that their neighbor is Karen Drexler (Manning), a virulent racist whose powder room is decorated with a Confederate-flag soap dispenser, and whose office is packed with television monitors she uses to spy on the young Black couple next door. (Karen’s generic brown wig and blandly preppy outfits miss their culturally observational mark, but the design team gets her home’s faux-chateau style and Tuscan-aspirational décor exactly right.)

There’s not much suspense here, because Karen’s aggressive villainy is made plain straight out of that suburban gate. When she meets Imani, she observes, “I just love how your people…you guys…come up with the most interesting names!” After pushing her way into the couple’s housewarming party, she spots Imani and brightly announces, “There she is, slaving away in the kitchen!”

And as she rambles at the homeowners’ association meeting, “What happens is, it starts with weed. Next thing you know we have criminals coming into our neighborhood. Then we’ve got pimps and prostitutes. Then you’re having Black babies, can you imagine? You know how these people are.”

That Karen is played by Manning (“Orange Is the New Black”) adds yet another layer of surreality. Manning — who has generated controversy in the past with MAGA and QAnon-influenced social media posts — seems on very shaky ground here. If she’d been able to calibrate her performance, she might have given a one-note character some depth. Instead her approach feels highly emotional, less considered, or even intuitive than it is defensive. It’s hard to know what she saw in this particular script, because she’s unable to locate a human inside the stereotype.

Then again, she doesn’t have much scaffolding around her. Karen’s outbursts, which start in Crazytown and move into Insanityville, are interspersed with panic-scored closeups of her standing alone, staring angrily out into space like, well, the deranged lunatic that she very obviously is. So when she eventually busts into Imani’s home, brandishing a gun and shouting, “C’mon, girlfriend! Let’s do this!” we’re not so much scared or outraged or saddened as we are embarrassed and bemused.

It doesn’t help, either, that cell phones have brought us true-life examples of genuinely dangerous “Karens,” making such a shallow re-creation feel particularly questionable. Which is not, of course, to say that art can’t imitate life in impactful ways. Writer-director Daniels (“His, Hers & the Truth”) seems to be aiming for Jordan Peele–style social commentary. But comparisons to Nia DaCosta’s blistering new thriller “Candyman,” which Peele co-wrote and produced, won’t do “Karen” any favors. 

Considering that there’s not a single twist or surprising moment, “Karen” fails as a thriller. Given that it delivers its messages — that Black lives matter, and that Karens and some cops are racist — with all the subtlety of a meme, it fails as a cultural critique. And because the talented Burke is committed enough to make us wish she had better material to work with, it even fails as exploitation cinema.

If, however, Burke is able to use the film as a stepping-stone toward more and better projects, well — to quote Karen, that would be awesomesauce.

“Karen” opens Friday in U.S. theaters and on-demand.