“A Bag of Hammers” is a 2011 dramedy that’s indie through and through. The characters and situations are quirky, the dialogue is smart (or at least it tries to be), the soundtrack is alternate rock from people you’ve never heard (of), the pacing is slow but not sluggish, and director Brian Crano (“Simply Plimpton”) incorporates enough interesting camera angles to make it decidedly “Off-Hollywood.”
But like so many indie flicks, logic takes a back seat while quirkiness takes a Mr. Toad wild ride through the city.
In what city, I wondered, would it be possible for two slackers to make a living posing as a “free valet service” at funerals and visitations and stealing a car at each somber event? I mean, wouldn’t the undertaker say something to two guys dressed like waiters from the waist up and beach bums from the waist down whom he knew wasn’t part of his operation? And even if they did pull it off once, isn’t stealing a car and selling it to a chop shop a big enough deal that someone would have ID’d the guys and the cops would be on the lookout, especially if it happened again and again at funeral parlors and cemeteries? Or maybe the cops in this no-name city are particularly clueless. They must be.
Our quirky perps don’t just hit and run. They’re basement dwellers who’ve seen the light, and so they shuffle along the streets dragging a “Complimentary Valet Service – Sorry for your Loss” sign behind them, rather than trying to hide it from police who might have responded to the last grand theft auto. Even when one of them finally IS arrested, it seems like it’s no big deal and he’s out again . . . because the plot demanded it.
You see, “A Bag of Hammers” isn’t a crime drama. It’s a coming of age story involving two overgrown delinquents who are likeable enough, but losers all the same. In the world, though, there’s a whole hierarchy of winners and losers, and the single mother (Carrie Preston) they rent an apartment to is an even bigger loser than they are. Seeing her serious shortcomings is enough to make them confront a few of their own . . . sort of.
Here’s were more logic (or the lack thereof) comes into play. The guys keep on with their larcenous ways despite a sister’s (Rebecca Hall) obvious disapproval, and even when their tenant’s neglected 12-year-old son (Chandler Canterbury) needs them and they bond with him, their characters aren’t just conflicted—some of them behave in ways that are inconsistent with their personalities.
And the ending? I can forgive an awful lot, but the way that Crano tied up loose ends was like a car I once had where it kept chugging and threatened to end at least three or four times after you turned the key to the “off” position. Tonally, it was a Tale of Two Movies, with the second half served with a side of cheese.
All that said, the acting and dialogue are two reasons for watching this little film. Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig complement each other as the lead characters, and Preston does an amazing job of playing a single mom with complexity. In less competent hands her character could have been both a cliché and a simplistically “bad” person. But Preston manages to make us feel sympathy for her character and the position the character finds herself in. Todd Louiso, Gabriel Macht, and Amada Seyfried also star in this low-budget indie dramedy.
“A Bag of Hammers” was shot with a Red One Camera and has the sharpness to prove it. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the film looks great visually, with bright and natural-looking colors (skin-tones included) and a healthy black level that makes for a pleasing presentation. There’s a nice sense of 3-dimensionality, too, facilitated by strong edge delineation.
The audio is a less impressive English Dolby Digital 5.1 that’s functional but nothing more. The film is mostly dialogue and background music. There’s surprisingly little in the way of ambient sounds and rear speaker effects, and so on the one hand the 5.1 is sufficient; on the other hand, you’re constantly aware that it’s nothing special.
The only extras are a short and standard behind-the-scenes featurette and the trailer.
If you’re wondering what the title means, don’t worry. You’ll be hit over the head with it at some point in the film. “A Bag of Hammers” fights against itself. Part of it is a smart indie dramedy with believable characters and dialogue, and part of it feels manipulated and artificial. Watch it for the good things, and overlook the bad. But if you're like me, the illogical premise and plot points are too big to ignore.