A Bag of Hammers (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jake Sandvig) made a living by pretending to be valet parking attendants at a cemetery. As soon as the unsuspecting grieving people handed the car keys to one of them, Ben and Alan picked up their “Free Valet Parking” sign, loaded it in the car, and drove the vehicle to a car shop owned by Marty (Todd Louiso). Marty would then pay the duo thousands of dollars, all part of a day’s work. When Lynette (Carrie Preston) and her young son, Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury), moved in next to the crooks’ house, it became increasingly obvious that Kelsey was being neglected. “A Bag of Hammers,” written by Jake Sandvig and Brian Crano, was a comedy-drama with some good ideas but since its characters weren’t fully fleshed out, the revelatory scenes that were supposedly charged with intense emotions didn’t feel entirely convincing nor earned. The script did a good job establishing that Alan and Ben were goofballs. The early scenes which involved the two of them pulling scams were mildly amusing. The actors benefited greatly from their charming looks. If Ben and Alan were played by buff guys with tattoos, there would be nothing funny about their actions. But what was the true nature of Ben and Alan’s relationship? The two lived together. They didn’t date anyone. Ben had an ex-girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried) but hell freezing over had a better chance than the two of them getting back together. Understanding their relationship, in which one could either translate as a romance or a bromance, was of particular importance because of the happenings in the latter half. We learned that Ben and Alan had difficult upbringings, but I wasn’t convinced that their partnership, as vague as it was, was strong enough to be able to relate to the kid being abused by his mother. Alan and Ben’s struggles were different–though it isn’t to suggest any less serious–and potentially moving, but since the script did not allow us to get to know them openly and in consistently meaningful ways, a strong emotional bridge wasn’t established as they tried to convince Kelsey that they could relate to what he was going through. Luckily for the film, Preston did a wonderful job portraying a woman who was drowning–drowning in poverty, shame, feelings of inadequacy, and depression. Each time her face, so tired and forlorn, was front and center, especially during her job interviews, every part of her screamed desperation, from her nervous yet glowering eyes to her very tense shoulders. It was scary and sad when she entered the house in a rage and Kelsey just sat in the kitchen, living off another Monster Energy drink for dinner. The moments when I felt something real–something visceral–most often involved the scenes of mother and son. Another interesting but underdeveloped character was Mel (Rebecca Hall), a waitress at a diner and Alan’s sister. Although she was the voice of reason with an air of seriousness about her, I liked it when she smiled. You could tell she was smart, so why not give her funnier and wittier things to say? Directed by Brian Crano, for all of the weaknesses of “A Bag of Hammers,” it managed to hit some emotional truths. It felt right that our sympathies were almost never toward Ben and Alan but always for the boy trapped by the cards he’d been given.