Director: Nick Simon
Writer: Daniel Gilboy, Thomas Larian, James Wright
Producer: Lisa Hansen, Thomas Mahoney
Stars: Mandela Van Peebles, Brytni Sarpy, Kanoa Goo, Tony Amendola, Sandra Cevallos, Tim Russ
A domino of death follows a young husband whose job serving eviction notices inadvertently unleashes a karmic curse.
Now that I think about it, maybe the logic that led me to select “Karma” for an evening’s entertainment wasn’t thoroughly vetted. Although director Nick Simon’s 2015 thriller “The Girl in the Photographs” (review here) garnered a great deal of derision, I was one of the few who reviewed the film favorably enough to be interested in further work, which singularly convinced me to give “Karma” a go.
I didn’t initially realize Simon also did “Truth or Dare” (review here), not the one from Blumhouse but the one that aired on Syfy. Checking up on my review of that film, I scored it a 60/100. That’s equivalent to an accolade according to Syfy standards, so it seemed like I remained in confidently competent hands. Had I known Simon also directed “2 Lava 2 Lantula,” maybe putting his TV movie pedigree together would have provided more pause when it came to “Karma.”
Like 99% of us, Manny Everett (Mandela Van Peebles) just wants to stay ahead in the count against life’s daily curveballs. Squeezed by student loan debt, Manny and his wife Alicia (Brytni Sarpy) reluctantly live with Alicia’s parents. Even more reluctantly, Manny finds his heart of gold forced into discoloration when he accepts a job serving eviction notices for his ruthless realtor father-in-law Frank (Tim Russ).
I don’t know why Frank needs a second person to punt people out of his properties, or why he needs anyone at all, particularly when there’s a deputy at his side to do it for him. “Karma” isn’t an intricately imagined movie when it comes to details though. You’re only doing your viewing experience a disservice by applying more thought than the script does.
Manny can’t believe his luck when his old high school chum Kevin (Kanoa Goo) turns up on Frank’s delinquent tenant list. Clearly disheveled and caring for a bedridden mother, Kevin cryptically warns Manny will regret flexing his boot if he goes through with the eviction. Urged on by Frank’s insistence, Manny has little choice but to put down his heel. By doing so, Manny becomes the new curator of a curse where bad luck becomes worse, and the loved ones around him feel the effects of a demon determined to punish bad karma.
While it certainly has the capacity to fall lower, “Karma’s” deliberate design makes it impossible to score higher than a midrange 50/100. It’s a formula film blueprinted from the beginning for made-for-TV mediocrity. As long as they’re being honest, I doubt its creators would disagree. The movie’s main reason for existing was to fill 3% of the calendar on Syfy’s ’31 Days of Halloween’ schedule. Having to hit no higher goal than that, “Karma” sufficiently satisfies minimal expectations.
“Unremarkable” describes virtually every aspect of the production. As unflattering as that may seem, it’s preferable to “unprofessional,” “careless,” or “terrible.” At its worst, “Karma” is merely average.
Acting gets most of its gas from reliable veterans Tim Russ and Tony Amendola. Passable performances round out the rest of the roster, led by milquetoast Mandela Van Peebles as Manny. Like everyone around him, Van Peebles operates at a five on a ten-point scale of intensity. Still, he squeezes enough presence out of his static character to earn some empathy as a well-meaning guy who just can’t get a fair shake.
Wobbly writing accounts for much more of the wonkiness. Singling out Manny again, the man means to be our emotional anchor to a cute relationship with his wife, Scrooge-like turnaround when it comes to the tenants, and the relatable hard luck of someone struggling to make ends meet.
Then the script does something stupid with a background bit about dumping his high school sweetheart at their homecoming dance. Even excusing him as a teenager at the time, attaching cold-blooded behavior to a supposedly sympathetic character is a rookie mistake. There are smoother ways to put a bump in front of Manny’s ex that don’t make him look bad. But that’s only the start of the script’s slipups as it zeroes in on finding the fastest route to the finish tape.
Malarkey about the dharma demon’s curse only makes as much sense as it has to in order to keep viewers from questioning explanations in the moment. Later you’ll go, “wait, what?” but by then it matters even less. It’s not like “Karma” ever intends to be subtle or sneaky, what with a serendipitous sister spontaneously showing up when the potential victim list runs out of names, or crusty dialogue such as, “excuses are like a-holes, everybody’s got one.” Somehow, it took three people to concoct “Karma’s” simplistic screenplay, yet all of them wave a white flag of surrender with a batty ending suggesting no one knew how to wrap everything up.
On the plus side, “Karma” features some surprising stunt work and other effective inclusions providing a polished presentation indie thrillers don’t always have. The movie is consistently dour to a point where it cannot be considered fun. But it cuts its edit so cleanly and fits between commercial breaks so smoothly, it’s hard to fault the filmmakers for responsibly filling the quotas that were most critical to their employers.
Would you ever want to watch “Karma” a second time? Will you even remember you watched it a first time? Can the film be definitively described as “good?” Can it be definitively described as “bad?” Is it scary? Is it silly? The answer to each of those rhetorical questions is of course, “no.” To keep from repeatedly rolling eyes, one merely has to accept “Karma” at its meager face value and remember, this is a film focused on function, not finesse.
Review Score: 50