If Taryn Manning furiously scrubbing off the colorfully chalked out Black Lives Matter street art at the top of the ham-fisted horror-adjacent comedy Karen doesn’t give off enough evil white woman wrongdoer vibes, then the tousled, slightly askew bob with the lace sitting atop this Karen’s saltine scalp is a dead giveaway.
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: In no way, shape or form is Karen a “good” movie. It suffers from the same didactic dialogue disease as the social (media) horrors that came before it—the most recent, disappointing example being Candyman. The wigs and skin are dry, the script is as boneless as a chicken nugget, and it falls into the trap of positioning its villain as an exceptionally shitty specimen among well-meaning whites and other non-Black people, when in reality, Karen syndrome is as common as a cloud.
Karen doesn’t try anything new, nor does it provide any level of introspection or perspective on race, class, gender, or sexuality that you can’t get from thumbing down a timeline. It’s easy to call every beat, every arc; I imagine that some Black viewers, who’ve long been inundated with this kind of sad attempt at saying something about the ills of our society, can rip off lines from the script before they’re ever uttered. It’s with great disgust and shame, then, that I admit that the amount of hootin’ as well as hollerin’ erupting from my chest while watching Karen was damn near Avengers: Infinity War-worthy.
One thing that makes this movie better than the blockbuster mirror man horror joint from earlier this summer—I’m only half joking—is that there’s absolutely no self-seriousness here. There’s no mystery. The only curiosity conjured during the entire 90-minute runtime was whether or not the term “Karen” actually existed in the Karen universe, and all it took was a joke about Manning’s Karen being a Karen to solve that mystery. Directed by the relatively unknown quantity Coke Daniels (not to be confused with Lee Daniels, who is very much a known quantity), Karen in its pedantry and predictable gaffs is the literal embodiment of the “awww shit here we go again” meme from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
The story is well rehearsed: a Black heterosexual couple, Malik (Cory Hardict) and Imani (Jasmine Burke), move into a new suburban home. Their neighborhood is filled with non-Black neighbors who are either saying shit like, “It’s about time we got some Blacks in here,” or else are fuming at the sight of colored folks, like Manning’s Karen. She introduces herself as a stay-at-home mother—letting loose a little chuckle when she mentions that her husband is dead, which gives me the sense that Karen, in another life, was probably a Carole Baskin-esque figure—and the president of the HomeOwners Association (a fact one would think might disqualify her from being a Karen, since she is the manager one would ask for, but alas, she does call the cops on Black men before the credits roll). At its simplest, the film is about Karen tormenting this couple—who call each royal honorifics and use the word “woke” as a love language—enough to move away. She does so using every tool in the petty handbook: from threatening to vote them out of the neighborhood, to interrupting Malik as he’s peacefully solo-toking a blunt in his car sitting in his driveway, to spying on Malik and Imani while they love down on one another.
Hardict and Burke don’t have much magic per se, but they carry Daniel’s script with the level of feigned intensity it calls for. Suspense is genuinely hard to come by, and the moments that seem to be the gravest—when Karen is calling her cop brother (Roger Dorman) on three anonymous Black men, or when she pulls out a revolver the size of her head and points it at Imani—are usually offset by the understanding that Karen is not about to blow away our expectations. The beats feel bound to happen. But it’s when the movie leans into how absolutely obnoxious its premise is—like when Hardict’s voice jumps an octave to show some weird misplaced fear of this petite-if-demonic white woman, or Manning’s sexually curious “mm’s” creep from her thin lips while spying on the couple—that Karen absolutely sings.
Manning is the star here, and rightfully so. Apparently, white women have been attacking her as a race traitor for taking on the role at all—their reactions recalling the image of a snake eating its own tail. But listen, it’s not like Karen needed to be made (honestly, what art just has to be made?), nor is it a necessary watch. It’s not smart, nuanced, or particularly expansive. But it is self-aware of its own foolishness, which is more than we can say regarding the movie about repeating a name in a mirror.
While Karen the film might become a casualty of pop culture churn, only attracting a ho-hum set of viewers who flip to it on BET, it’s easy to imagine a subset of Twitter heads taking it all in together one night and tweeting through the madness. That’s sorta how all of this started anyway, right? But the film could be endeared, quietly, like the term itself (as teespring terrorists create t-shirts with “I’m embracing my inner Karen” ironed onto them for the sake of...fashion?), stashed away for the right boozy night to get a good laugh in. Most likely, though, it’ll end up in the dregs of the Walmart bargain bin, where most ancient film treasures can be found. Because don’t get it twisted—as much as this movie is saying and doing nothing, it is saying and doing it, without feeling the need to have to prove anything. Which, these days, is a godsend.