A Bag of Hammers (Director: Brian Crano): Based upon the trailer I watched before SXSW, I guessed that this film might make a funny little diversion from my schedule. The jokey title and the pair of likeable goofs in formal wear reminded me quite a bit of Dumb and Dumber and I was fully expecting this to be the indie version. I was in for quite a surprise.
Alan (Jake Sandvig) and Ben (Jason Ritter) are longtime best friends who live a happy slacker existence by running an unusual scam. They set up a free valet parking sign at cemeteries and then steal the car of the first mourner to hand over keys. It’s a funny gag, even if you don’t believe it could keep working over and over again. They live in their own house, and even have another house next door to rent out. They mock Alan’s sister Melanie (Rebecca Hall) affectionately at her job as a waitress in a pancake restaurant. She thinks they should grow up. There are shades of some family tragedies amongst the trio that have led to an unusually strong bond.
Life is funny and carefree for the boys until they rent their house out to a desperate single mom (Carrie Preston) fleeing hurricane-ravaged New Orleans with her 12-year-old son Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury). It’s clear that Lynette is having a lot of trouble finding a job and taking care of her son. While Melanie shows concern, the boys choose to ignore the situation lest it interfere with their easy lives. When the movie takes a sharp turn toward the dramatic, it’s as if these two characters are dragged out of the comedy they’d prefer to be in into a much more grown-up film. And that’s the surprise.
It’s extremely difficult to pull off this delicate mix of styles, but it mostly works. The script, co-written by Crano and Sandvig, does a great job of playing Alan and Ben’s relationship for laughs. Even when the bromance is revealed to be quite a serious family relationship, there are still some fresh comedic moments. And even at their worst, you never believe that Alan and Ben are the slackers they keep desperately trying to remain.
But at times there are some elements that, while perfectly adequate for a comedy, are a little stretched when placed in a serious film. Melanie’s character is underwritten, which is a shame because Rebecca Hall is wonderful. We don’t even know where she lives and why, for instance, she wouldn’t have rented the house next door to her brother. As well, as I mentioned earlier, their valet parking grift is funny but doesn’t really hold water in anything other than a farce.
I also got the impression that Crano didn’t quite know how to handle the ending. A very funny montage turns out not to be the ending I was expecting and then after the real ending there are more scenes that appear to be outtakes. All very enjoyable but a little bit muddled.
Nevertheless, there are moments that are genuinely moving, and that was altogether unexpected in such a funny film. Young Chandler Canterbury has the sort of open and innocent face that could melt a heart of stone. Or two. And there is a real warmth to the film that doesn’t diminish the humour. I also want to especially recognize the work of Carrie Preston, who brings real depth to a character who could have been one-dimensionally unsympathetic.
In the end, it turns out that A Bag of Hammers (the expression, and the film itself) isn’t what you think it’s going to be at all, and that sense of surprise and discovery is rare, and commendable.