There are ample pleasures of the half-movie. Features of the half-film include a lack of b-plot, a meandering tone, haphazard scenes, and a barely feature-length runtime. The reasons why productions result in half-movies usually come from vastly re-written scripts, overrunning schedules and/or eclipsing an allotted budget, but they tend to fade away into obscurity. “A Bag Of Hammers,” which opens in theaters showing actual whole movies this Friday, features a few likable actors and a strong score from Johnny Flynn, and so it qualifies as a breezy diversion of sorts. But is it a movie?
Ben and Alan are a couple of twentysomething cons who run a series of scams landing somewhere south of sustainable. While they lift cars from the bereaved at funerals and flip them for profit, they somehow manage to keep maintenance on a couple of homes, including providing support to Alan’s sister Mel (Rebecca Hall) while she finishes her education and slings waffles at a greasy spoon. While there's obvious familial love between Alan and Mel, he views her "legitimate" employment as degrading. Both he and Ben can barely contain their glee as they force Mel to participate in the Wiggles Waffles Wiggle, a mandatory dance she must perform for all customers.
One such scheme the boys run involves charging rent to a squatter next door, a harried single mom with Kelsey, a grade school moppet hip to most of their capers. He starts to suss out these two as con-men, noting their irregular hours, dodgy-looking button-down shirt/shorts combinations and penchant for stupid sitcom banter. But before they can bring him on as a likely protege, his mother's body is found collecting gas fumes in her garage. Knowing what the future entails for the boy based on their own backgrounds with broken families (unsupportive parents and failed relationships are alluded to), they take him in. Though Ben seems to think this is a last minute precautionary measure, deathly afraid of any sort of commitment (see: Amanda Seyfried cameo-ing as Exposition), Alan is ready to step up and become a father. Even if it's in the most reckless, irresponsible manner possible.
As the two leads, Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig have a plucky comic chemistry. Sandvig, stringy and handsome, is a string-bean counterpart to the thicker, sadder Ritter, and they have an easygoing rapport that suggests years of depending on each other. It's the sort of good-vibes friendship where one would think of a clever joke, then offer it up to the other as if there was someone else to impress. Young Chandler Canterbury is appealingly guileless as Kelsey, a boy with some rough edges but a kind heart, always with an offer of grape soda that he's apparently stockpiled. The sweetness between these three is undeniable.
However, "A Bag Of Hammers" feels the pressure to include conflict to rupture the utopia of a young boy and his two manchild friends, so Kelsey's long-term prospects drive a wedge between Alan and Ben. However, the film can't shake this layabout rhythm, so attempts at tension feel like a skinny person trying to wear an ill-fitting sweater. It's a drag when the laughs stop, essentially, and while there's strong dramatic work from Hall, who serves as the movie's conscience, this never feels anything other than a comedy pilot that received an eleventh hour infusion of stock drama. Moreover, logistically, the film doesn't hold water -- no one's going to spot the same two goobers standing in front of funeral homes with a valet sign, ready to steal cars each week? No one's going to check on Kelsey's mother and her unconventional rent situation?
Most discouraging is the fact that "A Bag Of Hammers" essentially wraps up slightly beyond the hour point, cluttering its final act with montage, fantasy sequences, and an ending that defies logical sense, as if the film were shrugging, "Hey, don't worry, everything's gonna work out, man." It's not so much a betrayal of the material than it is a desperate admission that this story wasn't particularly thought-out beyond the Ben-and-Alan chemistry. An interminable end-credits sequences, spiced up with unnecessary deleted scenes and out-of-context footage, feels just awkward, as if we skipped from the first disc of the "A Bag of Hammers" DVD boxed set to the final episode. As a short, "A Bag Of Hammers" would have been a standout. In its current incarnation, it's just about half a movie. [C]