Movie: Bandits (2001)

I have seen many movies where the actors appear to be having a miserable time and so I had trouble connecting with the feature.  2001’s heist comedy Bandits has the exact opposite problem: the actors appear to be having a great time, to the extent it is like watching a party to which the audience wasn’t invited. 

It’s interesting the lead here is Bruce Willis, as he also starred in Hudson Hawk, one of the few movies I have seen with this same problem.  There, he and Danny Aiello did a song and dance number during a heist, and the two seem so pleased with themselves and each other that I wondered if they even cared whether the cameras were rolling.

Willis co-stars with Billy Bob Thornton and Kate Blanchett in Bandits and a quick check of IMDB shows the cross-pollination of these three between various projects.  So it isn’t surprising they have great repartee here.  I suspect they were given considerable latitude to improvise, as some scenes run much longer than necessary. 

It’s like director Barry Levinson couldn’t bear to part with any of the resulting dialog.  I was surprised the director of Rain Man would consider helming a heist comedy like this.  Then again, that Oscar winner was more than a decade in the rearview mirror at that point.  Also, he directed Good Morning, Vietnam, where the endless improvisations of Robin Williams was a boost to both of their careers.

In keeping with long-standing film traditions, our bank-robbing leads have mismatched personalities.  Willis’s character is all things manly: impulsive, with a brute physicality, and always ready with a quip.  Thornton plays a sensitive hypochondriac, whose long list of fears includes antique furniture.  At one point, he is driving while listening to a medical encyclopedia as a book on tape.  I don’t know if there ever was such a thing, but I found this very clever and funny.

This is a movie that hits the ground running.  There isn’t much exposition or character development before Willis and Thornton escape prison when the former unexpectedly steals a cement truck, drives it through some woods and finally through a series of backyards, annihilating one fence after another.  The aerial shot of this is one of the funniest moments in the movie.

And there is a lot to laugh at in this.  Possibly the best moment is completely at random, as Thornton startles himself awake crying, “BEAVERS AND DUCKS!”  The first time we saw this, my wife laughed at that bit harder than I think I have ever seen her laugh before.  She’s in good company, as William Jackson Harper singled out this scene in an installment of the AV Club’s “11 Questions” feature.

But even with moments that are clearly meant to be humorous, I found myself a bit unnerved by some of the early scenes.  Before we get any real insights into the characters of Willis and Thornton, they park a stolen car in a random open house garage.  They then creep inside where they interrupt a couple of teens who are dangerously close to getting horizontal.  It is hard to read Willis’s expression, but I found my skin crawling at first. 

Fortunately, nothing disturbing happens in the time these men are in the house.  However, at one point, the boy finds a shotgun in a closet and points it at Willis.  I wondered if this was going to turn out like a similar scene in Funny Games.  It doesn’t, but it made me wonder why the boy didn’t call the police in the time he was going through the closet.  Then I remember: oh yeah, teenage boys.

Willis and Thornton next pick up Troy Garity, whose goal in life is to become a movie stuntman.  We first see him in a solid bit where squibs all over him fail to go off when expected, only to explode at random when he least expects it.  Seeing this, I immediately thought of Chekhov’s Gun, even if the gun in this case is curiously non-existent.

With Garity as the getaway driver, Willis and Thornton come up with a novel idea for robbing banks.  The night before the intended robbery, they invade the house of that bank’s manager, hold them and their family hostage and then go with them to the bank the next morning.  Even before the bank is open for customers, the manager has opened the vault, and the robbers have left with the money.

This led to another of those uncomfortable moments for me.  The first time the robbers commit one of these home invasions, the wife of the bank manager won’t stop crying.  I had a hard time finding the humor in that.  I mean, imagine the thinking behind this: “It’s funny because she thinks they might all get killed!  HAHAHAHAHA!”

As the number of successful robberies increases, they become media darlings.  They become dubbed “The Sleepover Bandits”, which my mind kept twisting into The Wet Bandits.

Parallel to this, we see Cate Blanchett as a lonely woman looking for excitement.  When we first see her, she is preparing an elaborate meal while dancing energetically.  I’ve never before seen anybody who enjoys cutting up vegetables as much as I do, but I definitely don’t dance around with flailing knives while doing it. 

At the end of all this, her husband says he forgot to tell her he has a business dinner he needs to attend that night.  While I will admit this is jerky, I suspect I would have invented an excuse not to eat with her after watching this spectacle.

Blanchett tears off in her car, driving recklessly and at random.  Thornton happens to be fleeing police on foot at that time. He runs out into the road to hijack her vehicle but she hits him with her car.  She tries to drive him to a hospital but it isn’t long before Thornton, terrified by her erratic driving and behavior, tries to jump out of the moving vehicle.

Still, she takes him to a scheduled rendezvous with Willis and Garity at a secluded cabin.  Seeing the opportunity for adventure, and showing an immediate spark with Willis, she basically forces them to take her along as a hostage.  Before long, she is alternately making time with either Willis or Thornton.

This development is one of the most surprising in the picture, as she refuses to commit to either man.  As she puts it, between the manly bravado of Willis and the sensitivity of Thornton, they together make the perfect man.  A details of this arrangement is left to the imagination, as this is a PG-13 film.

Unfortunately, the movie shifts down a couple of gears as the three try to figure out this relationship, resulting in long turgid stretches.  It is as if the picture wanted to be a wild comedy completely disassociated from reality while also being a drama exploring the complexities of this romantic entanglement.  Maybe a better film could have handled this more deftly, but I can’t imagine it.

Fortunately, at least half of the movie is deeply humorous.  One example: when Blanchett and Thornton first arrive at that remote cabin, they see a man on fire running through the woods, which turns out to be Garity trying out another stunt.  This surreal moment made me laugh long and hard, just from the absurdity of it. 

I know I will watch Bandits again at some point in the future, if only to see all the great little bits of humor in it.  In that viewing, I hope it becomes a more cohesive experience for me.  As it is, this is almost like somebody took all the best bits from a sketch comedy show that was originally unrelated sequences, and then stuck those elements anywhere they could in the plotline of a more serious film. 

Dir: Barry Levinson

Starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett, Troy Garity

Watched on Olive Films blu-ray