There aren't all that many great movies about scoundrels. Rapscallions, ruffians and reprobates have been the basis of some of the cinema's most enduring films, but not scoundrels. Scoundrels are lazy and unfocused and impishly full of potential -- they're the characters who are one pivotal moment away from blossoming into stand-up gentlemen, and that transition is usually so forced and obvious that the movies they inhabit tend to fall apart as soon as they try to get serious.
'A Bag of Hammers' is more charming than most of these flicks, and surprisingly affecting when it turns on the waterworks, but the joy of watching Brian Crano's eager and delightfully quick-witted debut feature is almost fatally dissipated by his film's inability (or unwillingness) to stick to its guns. The movie crackles with its own good-natured energy, but it can't figure out how to navigate around the conventional stuff that nails this kind of story down. The whole thing works, but for a film about slackers, it sure works a lot harder than it has to.
Ben and Alan (Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig, respectively), are best friends who do everything together. They eat together, they live together and they dress up as valet attendants at funerals in order to casually steal cars together. They amusingly banter back and forth even in the midst of their crimes, so comfortably invincible in their lifestyle that they barely get flustered when a cop pulls them over not five minutes after they've stolen a shiny Mercedes (they're a lot more interested in the fact that the car turns out to have been stolen from Ben's ex-girlfriend). Ben and Alan are confident that they can maintain this racket forever, happy to wreak havoc upon strangers so long as they come across as harmless little scamps.
Alan's sister, Mel (Rebecca Hall, supposedly an old friend of the director) works at the kind of restaurant where she has to wear a waffle on her head and sing a wiggly little jingle to each new table. She's the film's moral center, and yet despite the fact that her brother and his BFF commit grand theft auto several times a day, she just chides them with disapproving looks that say "What you do is wrong, but like almost every character in this film my need to be likable supersedes my need to make logical decisions."
When a single mother named Lynette (Carrie Preston) moves with her son (Chandler Canterbury) Kelsey into the house next door to Alan and Ben's, Mel confronts the new tenant about the unacceptable living conditions she creates for her kid, instantly alerting the authorities on a stranger, though she's spent years keeping her brother's indiscretions to herself.
Lynette isn't any less of a con artist than her new neighbors, but she's strained and nasty and has some wrinkles on her face so we know that she's pure evil and must be despised. Sure, she's a shrewish and overloaded character, but Lynette is also completely betrayed by the script's insistence that the difference between heroes and villains is a wink and an irreverent sense of humor. It's an interestingly egocentric notion, but the film is too subservient to its strained plotting to bother pursuing its most compelling moments.
When something happens to Lynette, and Ben and Alan are forced to become Kelsey's surrogate fathers, the fun that Crano's script (co-written with Sandvig) has in bringing everyone together is soon swallowed by the strained beats the film has to hit while making haste to its abruptly touching conclusion. The rigid and unyielding trajectory of Crano's story soon begins to undercut the legitimacy of its own emotional currents. Learning more about these characters is a rewarding bit of fun, but the events that push them forward are so clumsy and contrived that Ben and Alan ultimately deserve to be in a better film (you'll be able to recognize these events because most of them involve Gabriel Macht).
There's a ton of stuff to like here, and it's a real shame that Crano can't figure out how to best use all of the talent at his disposal. Ritter and Sandvig share a wonderful and unforced chemistry, Ritter in particular gives a serio-comic performance that waggishly develops into something of real substance. The speech he gives Kelsey -- the speech from which the film takes its title -- is a tender and beautifully realized moment that suggests Ritter has so much more to offer than we've seen so far. Little Chandler Canterbury is a huge find, hitting all the right notes as a young kid who knows he's on the precipice of some tragic stuff but refuses to sink into himself.
Even if some of the characters are massively mishandled, all of them have their moments, and Crano's wonderful way with actors often compensates for his flailing aesthetic instincts. With some more attention to framing, 'A Bag of Hammers' could have easily been hilarious instead of merely amusing, but Crano doesn't quite possess the dry visual wit of a Miranda July or an Elia Suleiman that helps this kind of material sing.
Ultimately, 'A Bag of Hammers' is just a touch too fragile to hit that hard. The film makes an admirable attempt to transition its twin heroes from scoundrels to saviors without sacrificing their cool, but for all of its irreverent energy this movie about perpetual children is overeager to grow up. The fact that the endless end credits are stuffed with lovely scenes that didn't fit in the film cements the feeling that Crano brought all the right tools for the job, he just doesn't quite know how to use them yet. With friends like Rebecca Hall, Jason Ritter and one increasingly famous surprise guest, this young filmmaker will probably getting another whack at it real soon.