Release: Friday, January 15, 2016 (limited)
Written by: Aaron & Adam Nee
Directed by: Aaron & Adam Nee
‘Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.’
Mark Twain’s preemptive words of caution to readers about to embark on the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn here become the Nee brothers’ own insurance against critics tempted to blast their movie for any perceived eroding of the fabric of classic Twain. Purists: you’ve been warned. This isn’t exactly Baz Luhrmann reimagining one of the greatest of the great Bard tragedies as a contemporary, bitter war between rival New York gangs of the mid-90s, but we’re in that ballpark. Band of Robbers is far sillier, far more absurd, far less concerned with narrative cohesion and artistic merit.
Still, the translation of 19th Century text into 21st Century living is as intriguing as it is amusing. Who knew this pair would lend themselves so naturally to the underground mumblecore movement? Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee), ever the grand storyteller and fearless explorer, is reinterpreted here as someone who hasn’t been able to graduate from the kinds of small-town hijinks people who never leave these places ultimately get caught up in. Ever since childhood, Tom’s been obsessed with unearthing what has been rumored to be a fortune in cash — a modern-day treasure chest that he sees as his ticket to a better life — while his best friend Huckleberry Finn (Kyle Gallner) has always been looking for reasons to avoid his abusive alcoholic father.
Huck vows to change his ways when he’s finally let out of prison following a trespassing incident many years ago. He’s taken in by the Widow Douglas (Beth Grant) who is adamant that Huck embrace a more pious way of life and act more “civilized.” He’s hairier and scragglier after years behind bars, appearing older than he rightfully should. Tom is now an underachieving cop with a perv ‘stache more eager to show off the shiny badge and gun than his experience as a member of law enforcement; he can’t wait to drive Huck home in his newly acquired squad car. But, as we learn, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Tom hasn’t stopped pursuing his dreams of fame and fortune. He envisions himself as something more than a lowly ticket writer; becoming a detective would be pretty cool. However, rather than pursuing the normal course of trying to impress his superiors and earning that promotion, he proposes the formation of a ‘Band of Robbers,’ recruiting the likes of Joe Harper (Matthew Grey Gubler), who is in this life a quasi-hippie/drifter, and Ben Rogers (Hannibal Buress), a car mechanic. They’ll rob a local pawn shop run by a man named Dobbins (Creed Bratton) for the contents of its relatively unprotected safe (or so they thought). Naturally they bungle the job and instead of life-changingly generous stacks of gold doubloons, they find a measly sum of wrinkled bills in some plastic bags.
The mission — even the film as a whole — is fueled almost entirely by Wes Andersonian absurdism. The premise is 85% idealistic — robbing from those who deserve to be robbed, à la Robin Hood, actually makes the boys heroes, not thieves — and 15% experience, with Tom pitching this as the next evolution in their misadventures. But when it comes right down to it, conditions are far from ideal: love interest Becky Thatcher (Melissa Benoist) is reincarnated in the form of a rookie cop who is assigned to Officer Tom Sawyer on the very day he plans to pull off the heist. Tom and Huck’s ‘experience’ also tends to fail them when they brush shoulders with bona fide criminals — friends of the mysterious Muff Potter (Cooper Huckabee) — who also have their hearts set on this theoretical treasure chest.
Band of Robbers isn’t executed with the flamboyance synonymous with Luhrmann and his crazy box office receipts, nor the confidence that makes the bizarreness of Anderson’s world-building somehow not only acceptable but uniquely entertaining. Its closest cousin is without a doubt Bottle Rocket, but this isn’t even that sophisticated. The affair is primitive from a storytelling perspective, one that relies more on the camaraderie of four friends to get us through to the invariably silly and contrived conclusion rather than the legitimacy of the action. But given the way it makes you feel come the end, Band of Robbers is something of an unpolished gem.
Recommendation: Band of Robbers, the second feature from the brothers Nee, explores contemporary ramifications of the Mark Twain cautionary tale, with a mix of solid comedy and iffy dramatic tension. It’s a consistently weird movie, one that has a better chance of rewarding viewers with fewer expectations and less criteria to be met.
Running Time: 95 mins.
Quoted: “. . .I guess just, uh, dig a hole, and drop me inside of it. Throw some gasoline on it, throw some fire on it, throw a grenade on it and kill me. I don’t want to live a life like that. Just, going with the flow, ya know? Never doing anything, just hoping you’d get by okay. When I die, I want there to be a parade. I want there to be a newsman to say, ‘We just lost the Number #1 Best Guy, Tom Sawyer — child prodigy, adult genius, American hero.’ We look over at the weather girl, she’s crying. We look over at the sports guy, he’s crying. He doesn’t even cry! He’s a sports guy, but he’s crying because Tom Sawyer died; because he did something with his life. Ya know, a lot of people don’t care what happens in life, they just want ham on their pizza, they want to watch teenagers get voted off of contests on television. But you and me, we’re not like that. You and I are the types of people that other people tell stories about, we’re the types of people who are going to be remembered.”
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