A Bag of Hammers: SXSW Film Review

Lighthearted grifter comedy turns movie-of-the-week when a mother's suicide throws an orphaned child into the mix.

First-time director Brian Crano delivers a muddled comedy starring Jason Ritter and Rebecca Hall about two felons who unexpectedly wind up taking care of a neglected child.

AUSTIN — A dicey blend that generates viewer goodwill but can't make its conflicting vibes gel, A Bag of Hammers will play best with the most soft-hearted viewers provided they don't mind rooting for unrepentant felons. Theatrical prospects are modest despite the commitment of a talented and recognizable cast.

Working with a script he co-wrote with star Jake Sandvig, first-time director Brian Crano starts off strong, offering funny, well timed dialogue between Sandvig and Jason Ritter as Alan and Ben, childhood friends who grew up to be grifter roommates.

Their scams aren't believable (how many times can you steal cars by posing as valets in the same location?), but they're sufficiently amusing to support what appears to be a lovable-lowlife scenario. They also allow for an entertaining, uncredited cameo by Amanda Seyfried.

The setup isn't immediately threatened when a single mom (Carrie Preston) and her scrappy son Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury) move in next door; the kid, in fact, has enough street smarts and curiosity to serve as a foil for the grown-ups.

But the fractured family brings with it heavy themes this lightweight skeleton struggles to carry. Kelsey is being neglected by his desperate, short-tempered mother, and after Alan's sister Mel (Rebecca Hall, who appeared in both of Crano's previous short films) calls Child Protective Services, a sad chain of events begins that results in the mother's suicide.

Plenty of successful comedies have put an abandoned child in the care of unprepared adults, but the abandonment itself is usually dispatched with as little drama as possible. Hammers, by contrast, draws the angst out to fill much of its running time -- offering multiple glimpses of the mother's wince-worthy job interviews, going behind the scenes with child-care agents and turning Ben and Alan's decision to essentially kidnap the child into the plot's main conflict.

Hall, whose character tolerates her brother's crimes but is herself a straight arrow, is most successful in finding a middle course through the movie's conflicting modes. She takes things seriously from the start, emphasizing Mel's realist maternal impulses. But she can't sell it all herself, and the script simply asks too much of Ritter and Sandvig.

Crano doesn't help toward the end, when he resorts to a couple of painfully maudlin shots of Kelsey, and the tale's contrived happy ending rings incredibly false.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival, Spotlight Premieres section
Production Companies: Manor Film, Two Ships, Locomotive
Cast: Jason Ritter, Jake Sandvig, Chandler Canterbury, Rebecca Hall, Todd Louiso, Gabriel Macht, Carrie Preston
Director: Brian Crano
Screenwriters: Brian Crano, Jake Sandvig
Producers: Peter Friedlander, Lucy Barzun Donnelly, Jen Barrons
Directors of photography: Byron Shah, Quyen Tran
Production designer: Bradley Thordarson
Music: Johnny Flynn
Costume designer: Michelle Sandvig
Editors: Brian A. Kates, Travis Sittard
Sales: Josh Braun
No rating, 85 minutes