A Bag of Hammers Lands With a Thud

Sandvig and Crano come equipped with the right tools, but lack the floor plan to hammer this one out

A Bag of Hammers is a well-intentioned, occasionally poignant, yet deeply flawed attempt to tackle such hot-button topics as child abuse, same-sex adoption and crime-always-pays-if-it’s-funny-enough-and-never-taken-too-seriously. Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jake Sandvig) play two California slacker buddies who have never been separated, running away from Fresno years ago to escape a horrible past that is never explained and ending up in a generic Los Angeles suburb (it was filmed entirely in Burbank) where they make a living posing as parking valets at mortuaries and cemeteries. When the unsuspecting mourners have the boys park their cars, the two dudes steal them, packing up the “Valet Parking” sign and reselling the stolen vehicles. They look like clean-cut college kids, which helps the grifter business enormously, and their crimes (Mr. Sandvig and Brian Crano would have you believe) are more prank than serious felony.

Somehow, in yet another inexplicable narrative turn, they’ve managed to invest in two bungalows. They live together in one and rent out the other to a traumatized, unemployed single mother named Lynette (Carrie Preston) and her precocious but desperately lonely 12-year-old son, Kelsey (newcomer Chandler Canterbury), who pretend to be Louisiana refugees from Hurricane Katrina. The landlords’ singular conscience is Alan’s sister, Mel (Rebecca Hall), who works as a waitress in a waffle house. When Mel peeks through the window to check out her brother’s new tenants, she is appalled to find the kid alone, neglected, living in squalor and existing on canned soda and microwavable TV dinners. Suspicions that their new neighbor is a prostitute are already aroused by Lynette’s long absences from home at night, but when her rent check bounces and she offers to pay them off with free two-for-one bargain specials, the guys, who can barely take care of each other, suddenly take on the responsibility of becoming the kid’s surrogate family. To eliminate the embarrassing red tape of trying to explain why two 30-somethings who live together want to adopt an adolescent with raging hormones, the writers send Lynette to the garage to turn on the carbon monoxide. Homeless, terrified of a future in foster homes and desperate for love, Kelsey welcomes his two new fathers with nonjudgmental acceptance and joy. A “bag of hammers,” explains Ben in his awkward way, is the bad stuff that life dishes out to nice people—cancer, divorce, bankruptcy, death, stealing cars. The important thing, he reminds Kelsey, is what you do with those hammers. But what these scam artists do is live like Peter Pan. They’ve never known the meaning of family or grown into mature adults themselves, so the role of the “nontraditional” family is something they’re eager to take on, hiding the kid from the cops, the school, the Department of Family and Child Services—everything legal. It works for a while, but then Mel picks up the phone to call in the proper authorities and all hell breaks loose. Heartbreak ensues.

The actors are fine in universally underwritten roles, and there are some fresh, amusing lines. When the deceased at one funeral turns out to be the father of an ex-girlfriend of Ben’s (a guest appearance by Amanda Seyfried), she delivers an understandably insulting tirade after they steal her car, to which Alan responds laughing. “What’s so funny?” she shrieks. “You speak in Michael Bolton lyrics,” he answers. (Well, anyway, it amused me.) Sadly, though, the film is more ambiguous than humorous. Everyone in it looks as if they had a different film in mind. Clichés abound. The valet parking grift is different, but it wears thin fast. Mr. Ritter (who looks like his father, the late sitcom star John Ritter, and also currently appears as Kathleen Turner’s dysfunctional son in The Perfect Family) and Mr. Sandvig are both too good looking and wholesome to ever be believable as purse-snatching, car-thieving slackers. Worse still, the film is not true to its own convictions.

The word “gay” is never mentioned, but it is obvious from start to finish that these guys love only each other and are capable of committing to nobody else. When they show up as prospective parents to adopt Kelsey, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that they are, indeed, a “couple.” Once he introduces us to all the issues, writer-director Crano clearly hasn’t the foggiest notion how to resolve them. A Bag of Hammers falls apart badly as it ends in a series of fragments that form a confusing montage that prompts the question: Are these vignettes supposed to be flashbacks, alternate endings or deluded fantasies? Some of it looks like it was tacked on after the fact in the editing lab. Most of it seems baffled and unclear. Some nice ideas floating around in here, but A Bag of Hammers is one of the few movies I can remember that appears to be composed mainly of outtakes.
rreed@observer.com

A BAG OF HAMMERS
Running time 87 minutes
Written by Jake Sandvig and Brian Crano
Directed by Brian Crano
Starring Jason Ritter, Jake Sandvig and Chandler Canterbury

A Bag of Hammers Lands With a Thud