Lightly likable, if finally flimsy, A Bag of Hammers suffers from both an odd, ineffective structure and a low-key tone that jars uncomfortably with the subject matter and makes the film’s stakes seem unnecessary low. A comedic drama about a pair of slacker auto thieves who end up caring for a 12-year-old boy after his neglectful mother commits suicide, Brian Crano’s film meanders about at its own pace; it observes longtime best friends/roomies/partners-in-crime Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jake Sandvig) pose as valet parkers at funerals in order to make off with the cars of the bereaved or hang out at the diner where Ben’s sister, Mel (Rebecca Hall), works and gives them an earful about their lifestyle.
None of this is particularly funny, least of all the humiliating waffle-topped hat Mel is forced to wear and the silly dance/greeting she’s forced to perform at the diner, but nor is it particularly off-putting either. Like most of the rest of the movie’s plotting, the pair’s success as car thieves is highly improbable, bearing little resemblance to reality, which wouldn’t be a problem except that the film’s other mode is a sort of gritty realism, courtesy of young Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury), suffering from the neglect of his mother, Lynette (Carrie Preston), an out-of-work Hurricane Katrina “refugee.”
Lynette’s desperate attempts to make a go of it provide the film’s grit, but this welcome respite from the antics of the leads is marred by Crano and co-screenwriter Sandvig’s contradictory attitude toward this character. While they’re clearly sympathetic to her plight as an unemployed single mother with no marketable skills, they unwisely insist on making her more than a little monstrous so that our boys look like model citizens by comparison. Why look for low-level office work when stealing cars is so easy? Except in contrasting the realism of Lynette’s job search with the fancifulness of Ben and Alan’s lucrative business, the film makes a mockery of economic reality.
More problematic are the script’s structural problems, which place the lead characters’ central reckoning so close to the end of the film’s running time that there’s scarcely any time to deal with the consequences. (Although, in an obvious highlight, the movie neatly compacts an ideal trajectory of the characters’ lives in one amusing and poignant fantasy montage.) By the time the movie screeches to a halt with a jarring thud, we’re left with the sense that the film should just be beginning its second act, not beginning the credits roll. But even if a strange, extended closing sequence in which the end titles play over scenes that look like they were salvaged from the cutting-room floor, attempts to fill in some of the gaps, the viewer can do little but wonder about the fallout of the characters’ actions. Still, since the film’s slacker vibe and lack of inquisitiveness have already kept the stakes so low, that urge to wonder is likely to be fairly minimal at best.