A Bag of Hammers starts out as an engagingly offbeat independent comedy about a pair of goofball con men and car thieves, but at the midway point it takes a left turn into very different and more dramatic territory. Some movies get more interesting when they suddenly add new textures, but that isn't quite the case with A Bag of Hammers. The film has charm and plenty of heart, but as gracefully as it moves in its first half hour, it never regains its footing after that. Director Brian Crano doesn't handle his characters' big problems as well as their little ones, and the movie struggles to maintain its tone over the course of a slightly lopsided 87 minutes. But what's good in it is strong enough that it seems unfair to dismiss the film, especially given the strength of the cast.
In A Bag of Hammers, Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig play Ben and Alan, who show up at cemeteries and upscale funeral homes offering valet parking for the mourners. Only they don't work for a parking service; instead, they steal the cars and sell them to their sleazy buddy Marty (Todd Louiso), who runs a garage. Ben's sister Mel (Rebecca Hall) often encourages the longtime friends to get a more stable line of work, but her feelings don't preclude her from occasionally taking money or a car from her brother. Ben and Alan may not be the sharpest thieves in screen history -- at one point, Alan realizes he's just stolen a car belonging to his former girlfriend Amanda (Amanda Seyfried), and that returning it would cause more problems than it solves -- but they're smart enough to launder a bit of their money by buying the cheap apartment building where they live and renting out units to others. One of their new tenants is Lynette (Carrie Preston), who has just arrived in L.A. with her 12-year-old son Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury). Although Kelsey is clever enough to figure out what Ben and Alan are doing, he becomes fast friends with them anyway, since they act more like older brothers than responsible adults. When Mel takes up Kelsey's offer of a soda, she discovers the apartment he and his mom live in is in shambles, there's no food in the cupboard, and Lynette is gone most of the time. It turns out Lynette is out of work and on the edge of emotional collapse, and after she offers to have sex with Ben and Alan in lieu of the rent, she goes into a final downward spiral that leaves Kelsey all alone. Ben, Alan, and Mel all spent time in the foster-care system as kids and have the emotional scars to prove it; the guys are determined to spare Kelsey the same fate, so they take him in, although Mel is furious that they've chosen to do so while keeping it a secret from the authorities. It doesn't take long before Ben and Alan discover that if they're really going to raise a child, they'll have to start acting less like his siblings and more like his parents, which could mean some big changes.
A Bag of Hammers is the first feature film from Brian Crano (he also co-wrote the screenplay with leading man Jake Sandvig), and there are some elements of the movie that he gets completely right. The laid-back cool of the film's first act, the clean compositions, and the run-down but sunny locations match the material beautifully, and Ritter and Sandvig have fine comic chemistry, bouncing off each other's personalities with an easy aplomb that makes them perfectly believable as old friends. Crano draws fine work from the rest of the cast as well, especially Louiso as the sleazy but curiously romantic Marty, and young Chandler Canterbury, whose mix of budding cynicism and childlike resilience is very impressive indeed. Unfortunately, Crano's touch isn't quite as sure when the film turns towards weightier themes, seeming clumsy and off-kilter when Kelsey's life turns everyone else's upside down, and while the cast carry the day (especially Carrie Preston's alternately hateful and heartbreaking turn as Lynette), A Bag of Hammers is a movie that doesn't quite deliver on the promise of its best moments. But there's little doubt that Brian Crano is a talent to watch; even though he falters at times, he's still made a film that's compelling and human, and if he can hone his dramatic instincts to the extent that he's worked out his comic ideas, he should deliver something very satisfying in the future.