Reasonably diverting and handsomely shot in black-and-white, “I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster” is a pleasant four-chapter reverie on modest but failed aspirations and unlikely contentment. Playing with a “Pulp Fiction” style of humor, minus the nastiness, helmer-scripter Samuel Benchetrit crafts a dryly playful round-robin featuring some surprising names turning in warmly knowing perfs, though the concept feels much too stretched, and degrees of laughter will largely depend on audience mood. Pic is likely to be a cult charmer at home, but outside chances are limited to fest auds attuned to Benchetrit’s cineaste references.
Pic’s fulcrum is a roadside diner, where down-and-out petty thief Franck (Edouard Baer) considers a stick-up until he realizes luck isn’t with him lately. Waitress Susie (Anna Mouglalis), clued in to Franck’s thwarted objective, confesses she tried the same thing two days earlier, but with no money in the cash register, she figured she might as well work the counter for a while.
Second chapter has middle-aged friends Leon (Bouli Lanners) and Paul (Serge Lariviere) kidnapping Malaury (Selma El Mouissi), the daughter of a rich businessman. The teen turns out to be suicidal, and the bumbling would-be abductors become more like surrogate uncles as they try to offer her the kind of parental warmth she lacks. This is the weakest story of the quartet, coasting on the likeability of the two men but let down by overly predictable setups and ancient gags.
The third tale returns to the diner, as two over-the-hill rock bands pull up for a quick bite. Leads Alain Bashung and Arno (playing themselves) discuss their former friendship and current status, Bashung trying not to gloat over his continued popularity while Arno exaggerates a waning career.
Final segment is pure nostalgia, as four ex-gangsters “rescue” former colleague-in-crime Pierrot (Roger Dumas) from a hospital and head off to their old hideout, only to discover that the secluded log cabin surrounded by forests has been torn down and replaced by the very exposed diner. With vet thesps including Jean Rochefort, Laurent Terzieff and Venantino Venantini as the old thieves, auds can relax into their amiable camaraderie, comfortable in watching masters enjoying each others’ company.
First and fourth episodes are best, though humor along the lines of an Aki Kaurismaki, or Belgian pic “Aaltra,” suffuses the whole. Each chapter has a title, such as “Drew Barrymore Makes You Think of a Hamburger,” a reference to a celebrity-named burger discussion between Susie and Franck (again, shades of a gentle “Pulp Fiction”). Benchetrit’s loopy ear for dry comedic dialogue, also apparent in his debut feature “Janis and John,” gets full play, though originality occasionally suffers.
It’s nice to see Mouglalis in a comedy, and even nicer to see how she handles the wry lines with confident aplomb; all the actors are clearly enjoying themselves.
Stylistically, pic delights in using an entire battery of forms, including a sped-up silent-film flashback culminating in an iris shot. The multiplicity of devices works because Benchetrit crafts a different mood for each segment, through both lensing (d.p. Pierre Aim shoots skillfully controlled images with masterful use of space) and the wide-ranging selection of music. Latter, from Schubert to Kris Kristofferson, also helps link the segments from first to last, though playfulness with volume turns into an overextended device.