First-time feature helmer Brian Crano maneuvers some tricky tonal shifts with impressive ease in “A Bag of Hammers,” a droll, quirky comedy with a pleasant amount of heart. Set to start a North American theatrical run in August after months of buzz on the fest circuit, this offbeat indie could nail fair-to-middling B.O. if receptive reviews and word of mouth help spread the word.
Longtime buddies Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jake Sandvig) are twentysomething L.A. slackers who revel in their arrested adolescence, blithely taking risks and cracking wise while operating a valet-parking scam to steal cars. Despite the admonishments of Alan’s sister, Mel (Rebecca Hall), who’s kinda-sorta sweet on Ben, the two friends are content to remain reckless and irresponsible — until responsibility is more or less imposed upon then.
After leasing their next-door rental house to Lynette (Carrie Preston), a stressed single mom who may be working her own scam, Ben and Alan strike up a friendship with Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury), the new tenant’s 12-year-old son, whose maturity level is slightly above theirs. But he’s also a neglected latchkey kid, leading Mel to lodge a complaint with child welfare authorities.
One thing leads to another, Lynette drops out of the picture, and Ben and Alan wind up accepting Kelsey into their household. And, for a while, into their valet-parking scam.
Working from a witty script he co-wrote with Sandvig, Crano manages the difficult feat of keeping his comedy on an even keel, even during moments that are jarringly serious or genuinely discomfiting.
In the latter category, there’s a scene in which Lynette, strapped for cash after failing to find employment, desperately offers sexual favors in lieu of rent to Ben and Alan. There are probably a dozen different ways this scene could have turned crude or smirky or both, and it’s a credit to Crano and his actors (especially Preston) that the aud has no reason to laugh, and every reason to expect the worst.
More often than not, however, “A Bag of Hammers” is very funny, with Ritter and Sandvig trading snarky quips to hilarious effect and Todd Louiso (“High Fidelity”) periodically swiping scenes as a larcenous garage owner who earnestly but unsuccessfully courts Mel, played by Hall as a woman for whom any intelligent man would risk making a fool of himself.
As Kelsey, young Canterbury initially recalls Francois Truffaut’s description of his Antoine Doinel alter ego in “The 400 Blows” — a child who is not merely mistreated, but not treated at all — making the character’s appreciation of Ben and Alan as surrogate fathers both comical and poignant.
Oddly enough, the pic’s final scenes suggest that Crano and Sandvig studied, of all films, Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” for inspiration. If so, they learned their lessons well.