Movie Review: A BAG OF HAMMERS Should Have Been Terrible, But It Very Much Is Not

A quirky indie movie about manchildren getting maturity by taking care of a precocious child? How the hell did A BAG OF HAMMERS end up being a good movie?

I should have hated A Bag of Hammers. I was dragged into the film at SXSW by some friends; with nothing else to keep me occupied I went along, figuring I could grab some food at this Alamo screening. Almost two hours later I walked out with a big smile on my face, loving this film against all odds.

What was it that made A Bag of Hammers such an unlikely movie for me? Well, here’s the synopsis:

A comedy about two misfit best friends incapable of growing up, whose direction is tested by an abandoned child, worn beyond his years; together they invent the family they’ve always needed.

That just sounds absolutely rotten, the worst kind of schmaltzy indie movie bullshit borne in the post-Little Miss Sunshine era. The description above is a sitcom concept, not a movie.

And yet the movie is great. How is that possible? Part of the answer lies in the script by director Brian Crano and co-star Jake Sandvig. They’ve written a movie where the touchy-feely sweet stuff at the end feels more or less earned, where there’s enough funny cynicism and honest pain to leave you wanting the happiness. And then Sandvig and co-star Jason Ritter are simply great in their roles. They’re likable, hilarious, charismatic, have terrific chemistry and are never overbearing.

The two are best friends from childhood, and both escaped abusive lives to run away to LA. There they steal cars by posing as valets at funerals, and in between burials they operate as grifters. They live in the guest house on a property in Burbank and rent out the front; a single mom and her son move in and the lives of these characters soon become intertwined.

The big complaint I have about the movie is that I would like to have watched these two characters just hang around for another two hours. They’re GREAT characters - funny, knowing, self-aware, just sweet enough not to be assholes and just crooked enough not to be smarmy. When the film subtly changes tones (and I think it changes tones very well), we lose most of that as the characters have to actually do stuff and grow up, etc etc. Should A Bag of Hammers do well I would like to encourage all involved to simply make a prequel that allows us to spend an entire movie with these guys getting into capers and stuff.

Chandler Canterbury, who was 8-year old Benjamin Button, is pretty incredible as the kid who comes into the lives of these con men. He’s asked to do some very heavy lifting, emotionally, and he nails it. Like Sandvig and Ritter (who also, by the way, has a massively demanding emotional scene that he simply nails), Canterbury gracefully dances around the film’s varying tones, all while avoiding simple sentiment and tear jerking.

The film’s biggest misstep comes with the kid’s mom; as played by Carrie Preston she’s an interesting character, but the script keeps demanding that she be almost inhumanly awful. Anytime a movie has a mom leaving her 9 year old at home by himself saying ‘Mommy needs a social life,’ I feel like that movie hasn’t created a full character but is rather leaning on stock nastiness.

But in the end it all comes together. Sandvig and Ritter are just joys to watch, and the film itself deserves any tears you might shed at the end (confession: I shed none, but I see how one could). I especially like the way the movie plays with the concepts of what an indie film like this should be, subtly mocking the way characters have spontaneous emotional breakthroughs in a scene where Ritter’s character engages in a weepy hug with a homeless lady.

As of this writing I don’t know what the distribution fate of the film is; I don’t think A Bag of Hammers is a classic but it is a well-made, engaging and emotionally honest indie film - a real rarity in a field where the films have been opting either for big time Fox Searchlight cheese or alienating mumblecore distance. A Bag of Hammers is a lovable puppy of a movie.

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