Bandits (2001) – Barry Levinson

Comedy is difficult. Pairing comedy with action is even harder. Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett are three capable comedic talents who have the intensity for action pictures. Barry Levinson has the deft touch to balance comedy and heavier fare in good pictures like Diner (1982) and Rain Man (1988). Yet, here they are, floundering in a story that would rather be cutesy than credible.

This is a painfully unfunny movie about a bank robbing team of polar opposites. There’s Joe, the cool, reactionary tough guy (Willis) and there’s Terry, the phobic, hypochondriac, who’s the brains, I guess but he’s mostly the mouth (Thornton). One’s a cowboy! One’s a nerd! And on Tuesday’s on TBS, they rob banks! They escape from an Oregon prison and hatch a plan to rob enough banks to open up a nightclub in Mexico. Their angle is to kidnap bank managers the night before the robbery and then take the managers with them to open up the bank before anyone arrives. Fair enough. However, we are told they are “the most successful bank robbers in the history of the United States,” despite using the same pattern for all their robberies, never wearing masks, the fact that they are clearly simply heading down the coast, and that while Joe and Terry change vehicles often, their getaway driver never does. Things get complicated when Kate (Blanchett) accidently runs over Terry and he decides to kidnap her, indefinitely, in violation of their rule of only taking hostages for 24 hours. Kate is in a terrible marriage and is bored out of her mind and so she decides that a little heisting might spice things up, it also helps that she and Joe instantly fall for each other. And wouldn’t you know it, then she and Terry fall for each other.

None of the plotting is necessarily bad, I mean, love triangles amongst thieves has made for good movies before but the script by Harley Peyton is so insistent on showing us how everybody’s got a quirky screw loose that it becomes unbearable. Almost every sequence fails and for all the personal information we get about all three of our principals, they never rise above what we find out about them immediately. Joe is the tough guy, Terry’s the egg-headed neurotic, Kate’s the wild one unleashed. We have that as soon as everyone’s introduced but we’re subjected to another 80 minutes of being reminded. It isn’t characterization; it’s like when a toddler colors something so hard the crayon breaks.

The actors do their best. Willis brings his on-a-dime transition from light to heavy, Thornton does all he can to keep his character from being insufferable and succeeds enough, and Kate justifies the swooning the two men feel for her. The problem is their talents aren’t being served by the script and it makes for a dull, depressing experience. Levinson seems to be on auto-pilot. There aren’t any visual flourishes, the pace is too slow for a heist movie and since the script has abandoned characterization, Levinson falls upon the old standard; the wordless sequence with a song that directly comments on the action. And that soundtrack – it’s like a mix between Now That’s What I Call Music 2001 and Time Life The Best of 80’s Power Ballads. Brutal.

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