SXSW FILM 2011
By Don Simpson | May 7, 2011
Director: Brian Crano
Writers: Brian Crano, Jake Sandvig
Starring: Jason Ritter, Jake Sandvig, Chandler Canterbury, Rebecca Hall, Carrie Preston
Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jake Sandvig) are a pair of slacker-cum-grifters whose signature con is posing as valets in order to steal cars from cemeteries during funeral services. They have been best friends forever, spending almost every moment of their lives within spitting distance (figuratively speaking, of course) of each other.
Ben and Alan own a house and a rental house — and this is where Lynette (Carrie Preston) and her son Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury) blow into the picture. Lynette and Kelsey have evacuated Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, and they move into Ben and Alan’s rental house. Lynette does not have a job — she is determined to get an office job, but is not qualified (the job interviews we witness are excruciatingly painful). She is never home (presumably earning cash by way of prostitution), so Kelsey is left to fend for himself on a steady diet of nothing except for Monster energy drinks and Hungry Man microwave meals.
Alan’s sister, Mel (Rebecca Hall), discovers that Kelsey is living alone in a filthy environment, so she contacts the Department of Family and Child Services about the situation — against Ben and Alan’s desperate pleading — and the slackers are left wondering if Kelsey would be better off sticking with them or in a foster home.
Writer-director Brian Crano’s A Bag of Hammers exemplifies the harsh economic environment in which a significant portion of the United States struggles to exist. It is a world in which everyone is doing what they can to get by, no matter how illegal or degrading. Ben and Alan steal luxury vehicles from the rich in order to continue with their low-stress slacker lifestyle; they presumably work often enough to be able to afford the mere essentials of their lives. But even Ben and Alan are being pressured by their boss (Todd Louiso) — the man they sell the hot vehicles to — to produce more. Mel works long hours as a waitress in a waffle restaurant; as if the work is not demeaning enough, she must sport a foam waffle hat and do a silly waffle dance for her customers. Lynette seems eager and willing to work, but cannot even scrape together enough cash to feed Kelsey a decent meal every once in a while. Financial stress drives a significant part of the narrative, prompting dramatic rifts between Ben and Alan, Mel and Alan, and Lynette and Kelsey.
A Bag of Hammers also discusses — albeit metaphorically — the “non-traditional” family element. Crano presents two cohabiting men, Ben and Alan, as a feasible parental solution for Kelsey. Of course Crano cannot suggest that Ben and Alan take Kelsey away from Lynette, so her character must first be taken out of the picture (literally and figuratively) in order for this solution to hold water. Up until a totally unnecessary montage sequence late in the third act, Crano does an admirable job maintaining a certain level of ambiguity about Ben and Alan’s sexuality. I hate to say it, but it seems almost like Crano felt like he had to set Ben and Alan’s sexuality straight before deeming them suitable parents for Kelsey — the fact that Ben and Alan are con men is not a problem, but the allusion that they might be gay must be straightened out.
The strength of A Bag of Hammers is in the cast. Ritter and Sandvig possess a unique sibling-like chemistry, especially in the naturalness of their childish bickering; they play off of each other as if they really have known each other for ages. Hall (who always does a commendable job of disguising her British accent in American roles) and Preston make the best of their all-too-abbreviated screen-time, as Canterbury steals the show with the film’s best performance.
The plot is painfully predictable and Crano always careens clear of controversy. Every time I think of A Bag of Hammers, the closing lyrics of Thao Nguyen’s song of the same title instantly pop into my mind: “It still soothes you, doesn’t it? Like a lick of ice cream.” Those lyrics seem quite fitting for Crano’s film, because despite its occasional bouts of seriousness, there is always enough sugar and cream to soothe any uncomfortableness.