Don't judge A Bag of Hammers by its first 15 minutes. The debut feature from writer-director Brian Crano may start out sounding like a goofy buddy comedy, but stick with it -- and it will surprise you. In a good way.
The two central characters are Alan (Jake Sandvig) and Ben (Jason Ritter), first glimpsed parking cars as valets at a funeral. Or are they? After a few minutes of banter, they give a claim check to the owner of a BMW, then casually get in and drive it away, stealing and selling it.
This scam apparently keeps them in spending money, enough that they own their own house. Indeed, they live in the guest house at the rear of the property, renting the main house to a newcomer, a woman named Lynette (Carrie Preston) and her 12-year-old son, Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury). Alan and Ben are benevolent types; when Lynette explains that she's still awaiting FEMA funds after losing her house in Hurricane Katrina (a dated reference, perhaps), they cut her a break on her rent.
But Lynette's life is on a downward spiral. She's divorced from a man who wants nothing to do with Kelsey and she can't find a job. When Alan's sister, Mel (Rebecca Hall), notices that Lynette barely has any food in her house, Mel reports her to child protective services. The pressures build until Lynette can no longer cope with the demands of motherhood.
Suddenly, Alan and Ben find themselves the only thing standing between Kelsey and a foster home. So Alan decides that it's time to grow up and take some responsibility -- starting with providing a home for Kelsey.
But can they do it? And even if they're emotionally equipped for parenthood, will they be allowed to do it?
That's the long and short of the story, but Crano turns it into something deeper and more heartfelt than a regurgitation of Three Men and a Baby or Mr. Mom. This isn't a wacky comedy about two doofuses figuring out how to be dads. It's about developing enough empathy to reach out to someone else, about getting past one's own hang-ups to help another person.
Abandonment is obviously an issue here, as is responsibility. It's not just the transformation from boys to men -- it's about the meaning of manhood and how to teach it to someone else.
Ritter and Sandvig have an easy chemistry, the joshing familiarity of old friends who can finish each other's sentences. Ritter in particular shines, shifting fluidly from glib to glum and back again, at times achieving an emotional nakedness that is truly touching.
A Bag of Hammers isn't out to change the world. But it does capture the sense of what happens when our world does change, in ways that bigger, more expensive films too seldom achieve.
Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine