Bandits is an unusual concoction. As a comedy, it comes up short on laughs. As a caper movie, it lacks suspense. And as a romance, it lays down a perennially interesting proposition -- the menage a trois -- then doesn't develop it very seriously.
Yet taken as a whole, Bandits is a success, a two-hour entertainment that floats along, stumbling into various genres, discovering its moments. The cast -- Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett -- is as eclectic and unexpectedly charming as the movie.
Somehow, Bandits works -- except with movies there is no somehow. Director Barry Levinson brought this one home, finding, amid the flashy performances and wild swings of tone, a thin cord of truth, between zaniness and naturalism, that allows it to hang together.
Any time someone makes a film that's not quite like any other, that's good news for two reasons. The first is that any artistic advance, however minor, is welcome. The other is that movies that aren't designed to formula are rarely financed. They're harder to make and even harder to market. Bandits isn't any better than a good formula picture -- it isn't incisive or memorable, just light and amusing -- but it's different.
Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton play Joe and Terry, convicts who break out of prison one afternoon and have to improvise from there. They rob a bank and hide out, then devise a plan to rob more banks, in order to raise money for a beachfront restaurant in Mexico. Everybody has a dream, and that's theirs.
To minimize their risks, they come up with a novel way to rob banks. They show up at the bank manager's home the night before, sleep over and go to work with the manager the next morning. The safe is opened. They take the money and leave.
The bank scenes, even when things go wrong, play flatter than they should. The audience is so sure -- too sure -- of Joe and Terry's basic decency that there's no real worry that they might hurt somebody. This is where the comedy drains some of the suspense, perhaps more than necessary. The filmmakers might have taken more of a chance with the audience's affections and made Joe and Terry just a bit darker.
As Terry, Thornton has the crowd-pleasing role. He's a worrier and a mass of imagined ailments, plagued by hypochondria, fits of blinking and some unique and inspired phobias, including Benjamin Disraeli's hair. He is so easy to manipulate that, at one point, Joe tells him a fake story about a brain-tumor victim, knowing this will result in Terry's becoming immobilized with the same symptoms. Thornton has some funny moments of physical comedy, as he gradually imagines that his entire right side has become paralyzed.
Willis as Joe is like the Willis of a dozen other movies, but that's not a bad thing. His masculine authority provides the movie's only -- and much- needed -- dose of menace. His stillness can be alarming, even if it's undercut here by the most unconvincing hairpiece of his career.
The performance of Cate Blanchett would be a revelation, except that her versatility has been demonstrated in every film she has made since Elizabeth. Here she is a neglected trophy wife who becomes Joe and Terry's willing hostage. Kate (Blanchett) is unbalanced and miserable, a combustible element brought into the men's partnership. Even worse, she's a Bonnie Tyler (Total Eclipse of the Heart) fan.
The men fall in love with her, but at least they're harder to get than the audience, which needs only a single shot: Blanchett replaces her refrigerator light with a blue bulb. The shot of Blanchett bathed in blue light is stunning, her face glowing like that of a star from the glamour era. As the picture wears on, the focus is less on crime and more on the three-way romance. Blanchett makes the shift in emphasis seem right.
Bandits was shot on location throughout Oregon and Northern California, and Bay Area audiences may recognize some locations, which include the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa and the Charthouse Restaurant in Montara. This film contains sexual situations and mild violence. [LaSalle's rating: *** out of 4 stars]
Labels: comedy, crime, drama, romance
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