BUY FROM AMAZON: CLICK HERE!
STUDIO MPI Media Group
RUNNING TIME 85 minutes
• Behind-the-scenes featurette.
Independent + slackers + petty crime + learning to grow up + turnabout into seriousness + heart (theoretical) = good time? Okay time.
Jason Ritter, Jake Sandvig, Rebecca Hall, Chandler Canterbury, Carrie Preston
Ben and Alan make a living stealing cars by posing as valets at cemeteries and renting out a house while living in its guest house. Their steadfast refusal to grow up is put to the test when a single mother and her son become their latest tenants, and Alan’s sister Mel suspects that the mother is less-than-dependable. Things spiral out of control, until Ben and Alan must face a major decision involving young Kelsey.
Among all the low-budget comedy-dramas about man-children discovering a few life lessons and growing into man-men, A Bag of Hammers rises stoutly to the middle of the crop. This is a movie that seems made to be rented, inoffensive and nothing extraordinary, but still a nice time.
A big factor in whether these samey indie dramedies can work is whether or not their leads can sell the material. Fortunately, this film has Ritter and Sandvig in its corner, and they are pretty delightful. Both straddle the line between smarmy asshole and lovable loser quite well, and they work well together, to boot. Ben and Alan have been friends forever, and their actors make that relationship believable.
It also helps that the movie is generally pretty funny. There’s less of the “irony-rich deadpan dialogue” brand of humor, and more situational stuff that’s kind of broad but still worked on me. The movie is also able to create a heart of sincerity, which is crucial, since it’s seriously trying to tug at your heartstrings here. There’s a gradual shift from a light tone to a somber one in the second half that could have been disastrous if not pulled off well.
In fact, that shift is probably the best thing about the film. It takes a very upsetting situation, involving a kid with an ugly home life, and treats it in a very mature manner. The actors are also able to make this transition work. Ritter in particular has to handle a Big Speech and some Big Decisions, and he sells it with aplomb.
Chandler Canterbury, AKA Nicholas Cage’s son in Knowing, also does good work. He’s playing the kidult character, a youth forced to grow up by circumstance, and there’s a gravitas in his eyes that’s kind of heartbreaking. He’s like a puppy with a sprained paw; you just want to hug him. Rebecca Hall is also adequate as the Female Voice of Reason. But the best performance in the movie belongs to Carrie Preston as the neglectful mother. She’s a screw-up in a way that’s both indignation-inducing and uncomfortably understandable. She’s not good to her son, but she’s had a rough life, and while that’s not an excuse, it’s a sympathetic reason.
There’s some stuff here that hits close to home for me. My family has done foster care my entire life. I’ve seen kids like Kelsey, coming from too similar situations as him. Part of Ben and Alan’s backstory is that they also came from broken, dysfunctional homes, and that they survived by finding each other. Now, they see a kid with nothing to lean on, and that spurs them out of immaturity. It’s no revelation that acting on responsibility will catalyze personal growth, but the way the movie explores this idea makes it feel fresh.
There’s enough good stuff here, in fact, that I feel like the movie was stopped from being better by nothing more than a sheer sense of half-assedness. More could have been done with just about every element of the story: Ben and Alan’s criminal ways, their romantic pasts, their troubled family life, everything. The film spends most of its time stuck in a kind of limbo of disconnected set pieces, and the beats that lead to the real meat of the story don’t start happening until over halfway through. That first half is pleasant enough, but it’s already fading from my mind. That’s how inconsequential it feels.
One more thing that makes me cut the film some slack, though, is its attitude towards the nature of maturity. Too often, movies like this will end on a falsely high note that the revelation and decision to grow up is enough. It’s not. Growing up is a process, and A Bag of Hammers treats the climactic decision the main characters have to face not as a Big Step but as the first of many steps. And then it goes into a rather lovely montage that shows the process in brief, ending in a beat that’s admittedly cheesy, but which gave me a big smile. It’s stuff like this that makes the movie worthwhile, if not incredibly special.
Included are a trailer (Which I never understand. I already have the film, why are you trying to sell it to me?) and a ten-minute behind-the-scenes segment that will illuminate absolutely no one about the movie or the filmmaking process.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars