Today marks the release of the A-list loaded, highly marketed heist comedy, Ocean’s 8, which I have already made clear that I will not see without a compelling reason, despite my girlfriend’s pleas, because it comes off to me as a lazy spinoff of a remake that nobody asked for, and seems like just another excuse for Hollywood execs to say, “Hey, we did it with LADIES this time! We’re totally not sexist!” Initial reviews are mixed-to-positive, with the relative consensus being that the film is carried almost exclusively on its star power, and that in terms of its plot and humor, it’s even more of a knockoff of the George Clooney Ocean’s trilogy than the actual diamonds Sandra Bullock et al are trying to steal. Needless to say, I feel comfortable with my decision.
So, rather than waste your money on yet another attempt to turn Rihanna into an actress or to feature a YouTube rapper whose stage name is misspelled bottled water, I offer you this alternative if you want to get your heist on. Written and directed by Bart Layton, American Animals made its debut at Sundance back in January, where it was among the darlings of the festival. The distribution rights were shared by The Orchard and MoviePass ventures, so I was going to see it no matter what, if nothing else than as a thank you to the app/card that lets me see so many movies to make this blog even possible. But even without that, this movie offers a fairly unique take on true crime, with some great performances from up and coming young actors, some legit pathos, and a few genuine laughs. It came out in theatres last week, and you should definitely make an effort to see it.
At times feeling like a mixture of The Bank Job and I, Tonya, the film offers an intriguing look at an actual robbery story that began about 15 years ago. In 2004, Spencer Reinhard, an art student at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky (no vampires), helped orchestrate the theft of some priceless original books from the school library’s special collection, including a first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (to my surprise, evolution is allowed in Kentucky – who knew?) and original prints of birds from Audubon. Joined by best friend Warren Lipka, as well as two other acquaintances – Chas Allen and Eric Borsuk, the four spent a year and a half plotting the robbery, with the intent to sell the works for millions on the black market as a way of breaking out of the doldrums of suburban life and – at least in Spencer’s head – creating a true work of art.
As last year’s I, Tonya did before it, the film almost exists as a fourth wall-breaking recreation of the actual conspiracy and crime, aided by contradictory interviews with the subjects as a framing device. However, unlike the Oscar-nominated comedy, American Animals uses the actual people involved for those interviews. The real Spencer, Warren, Chas, and Eric (along with family, friends, and educators) provide the facts and recollections of the incident, along with some playfully opposing opinions on some of the events along the way, with the main narrative craftily edited to match.
The best example I can give of this is a scene early in the film, where Spencer and Warren travel to New York to meet a contact for their potential buyer. Warren waits for the actual person while Spencer watches from afar. Through narration, Spencer says the contact was a man with a beard and a blue scarf. That man approaches Warren. “Or maybe it was purple,” he adds. The editors turn the scarf purple. The exchange is made, and the man walks off. Warren interjects, “No, that was just some guy, the real contact was an old man with white hair and a trench coat.” The film rewinds and replaces the hipster-looking guy with an old businessman. It’s a brilliant bit of play, like something out of the original Funny Games. The film advertises itself as “Not based on a true story, this actually happened.” While the standard “some events were changed for dramatic purposes” disclaimer is still there in the credits, it’s little touches like this scene that make such a dishonest marketing line forgivable, and the film goes out of its way to present as close to a true look as it can.
As I said, the main plot of the film plays like a highly-polished crime recreation show, featuring some outstanding work from some promising young actors. Spencer is played by Barry Keoghan (no relation to Phil for all the Amazing Race fans out there), most recently seen as the doomed George on Mark Rylance’s boat in Dunkirk. His face alone gives the proper impression of adolescent suburban malaise and ennui that he almost doesn’t even have to speak at all to get his self-doubt across competently. The fact that he pulls off a suburban Kentucky accent so well, given that he’s Irish, is all the more impressive.
He’s joined by Evan Peters as Warren (Quicksilver in the X-Men movies), Blake Jenner as Chas (star of Everybody Wants Some!! and the later seasons of Glee before marrying and divorcing his erstwhile co-star Melissa Benoist, aka TV’s Supergirl), and Jared Abrahamson as Eric (best known for the Canadian film, Hello Destroyer). The four form the beginnings of a cohesive robbery crew. Spencer is the idea man, casing the library (it’s at his campus after all; the others go to the University of Kentucky), and creating maps and models to plan the heist. Warren is the logistics man, dedicating more focus and attention than he ever did on his schoolwork or soccer game (he went to UK on a scholarship) to making the actual plan. Eric is the numbers man, an accounting student, who keeps the others in check, arranges for the assessments of the merchandise, and filling in any gaps or contingencies the others may have missed. Chas, the jock, is the wheel man and the muscle, arranging a getaway car.
On the surface, this seems like the start of a pretty good plan. They’ve got the brains, and the proper elements, even some brilliant old man disguises designed by Spencer that make for a great slow walk scene straight out of a comic book movie. But this is a true crime story, and any cursory research (if you don’t remember the actual news reports from back then) will tell you how it turns out. Still, the fun is in the execution, and despite 18 months of planning, all the little mistakes along the way that doom them.
If there’s a major flaw to be had, it’s that the film could be described as derivative by detractors. I choose to see it in a more positive light, but it definitely wears its inspirations and homages on its sleeve. There are a slew of moments that evoke classic heist films, the aforementioned I, Tonya and Funny Games, and even bro-comedies like the American Pie movies. Even the one major chase scene has shades of Baby Driver. You might even catch the stylized tone of someone like David O. Russell in the mix, with a couple of scenes reminiscent of American Hustle. The only other possible complaint for me is that the catalog soundtrack seems shoehorned in at times. I mean, when Warren and Spencer drive to New York, by that point you’re already thinking, “What cheesy New York song are they going to use? Oh, it’s ‘New York Groove?’ Sure, why not?”
The movie isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s not meant to be. At times you might wonder if it’s trying to be more of a thriller or a comedy, but the laughs are there, and they’re quite clever. Layton must have had a ball writing this script, taking the documentary segments and interviews and crafting this insane narrative, with some very well written dialogue to complement it.
So yeah, if you’re thinking about seeing Ocean’s 8, take your hard-earned money and see something better with the same themes. American Animals is a hodgepodge of movie ideas thrown together in a mixing pot to create a fairly unique heist film experience. As I said, the film debuted in cinemas last week, and with the summer blockbuster season in full swing, it’s likely to get shunted out sooner rather than later. Apply your money to what is almost certainly the better product, and enjoy something you’ve never seen before, even if parts of it seem really familiar.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite heist movie? How thankful are you that Blake Jenner has no relation to the Kardashians, America’s second-worst klan that starts with a K? Let me know!