Review: A Bag of Hammers (SXSW)
PLOT - Two 20-something guys have a fake valet service scam where they steal cars from funerals and weddings and sell them to make money (partly to help pay for a sister's college education). They're hardly the best role models but they suddenly find themselves in the care of a troubled 12-year-old boy who was living next door.
REVIEW - BAG OF HAMMERS is not reinventing the wheel. What it does - a familiar brand of indie comedy/drama with young and attractive leads - will not win any awards for originality but what it does, it does extremely well and that's the mark of a successful film.
HAMMERS starts as a light and charming comedy (the opening bit revolves around the many things that former WWF wrestler The Ultimate Warrior is awesome at) before a surprising and stark dramatic shift. It's the kind of balance that many films at this year's SXSW have tried to accomplish (and often have failed) but director Brian Crano admirably succeeds with his film. It's a cliche to say that life is both funny and sad, complex and cute but it doesn't make it any less true and BAG OF HAMMERS encapsulates that without ever feeling like a cliche.
Jake Sandvig (who co-wrote the film with Crano) and Jason Ritter form an impressive comedic duo, one strong enough to be able to last through the more serious moments of the film. Ritter, especially, shines and breaks out of his sitcom-y mold to deliver an excellent performance highlighted by a tough and emotional scene in a diner that explains the film's title.
The film is sprinkled with supporting actors who you'll no doubt recognize including Rebecca Hall (THE TOWN), Todd Louiso (HIGH FIDELITY), Gabriel Macht (THE SPIRIT) and Amanda Seyfried. Special kudos should be given to Carrie Preston who makes the most out of her limited screentime as the troubled neighbor to the film's leads. It would have been easy for Preston to play her as a selfish bitch (which she most definitely is) but there's a whole history in a few subtle gestures and looks that actually leave you feeling sympathetic for the selfish bitch.
Special consideration should also be paid to young Chandler Canterbury who was born with a child actor's name but never resorts to any of the contrivances many of his young colleagues do. He nails a pivotal scene in the movie and with that, we're with him for the rest of the ride (it's as much his movie as it is Sandvig and Ritter's).
One of the things about BAG OF HAMMERS that impressed me was its ability to take the audience by surprise. Granted, its SXSW screening was the film's premiere, but Crano has a few surprises up his sleeve with this film and the marketing material wisely keeps the film's twists and turns close to the vest. I'm trying to keep that same level of mystery about the film in the review because the less you know about the film, the more you'll be impressed by what it's able to do.
The ending of the film does tend to drag a little bit and it felt like Crano was really trying to milk the emotional climax for all it was worth but it's a gripe that can easily be fixed with a little editing before a major release. It's the only part of the film that felt a little over-sentimental and if it's dialed back just a little bit, HAMMERS will be able to end strong instead of limping across the finish line.
A BAG OF HAMMERS is, at times, laugh out loud funny while at times, is-it-getting-dusty-in-here sad. It doesn't try to be overly quirky or clever and tells a fairly standard story that, when you glimpse at the plot above, sounds like a poor retelling of "Two and a Half Men." But BAG OF HAMMERS manages to rise far above any indie or sitcom cliches and delivers a smart, funny and sweet film that deserves to be seen.