Frustrating characters rob ‘American Animals’ of heist film greatness

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

What happens when four idiots try to steal priceless tomes from Transylvania University’s rare books collection? For writer-director Bart Layton, the result is a true story begging to be dramatized with the slick style of a heist film — and with “American Animals,” Layton largely sticks the landing.

A meta irony pervades “American Animals,” down to its opening titles — the fact that MoviePass, a company beset by turbulence at an hourly pace, is distributing a film about a potentially doomed venture is a tidbit of inside humor that validates the old adage about strange fictions and stranger truths.

The same applies to the rest of “American Animals,” as Layton leverages his experience in documentary filmmaking to lend the film its own side chorus of meta commentators — the criminals themselves, and those who knew them.

One-on-one interviews with former wannabe thieves Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen II punctuate Layton’s fictionalized version of events. They’re unreliable narrators, contradicting each other with a frequency that the film wisely acknowledges, reminiscent of the interviews that populated last year’s “I, Tonya.” They even appear alongside the actors portraying them, casting cautionary glances and conveying a wistful regret toward their younger selves.

It’s a credit to the actors portraying them that a consistency of character remains, even as the film cuts between interviews and its own fictionalized narrative. With all of the film’s seamless cuts between the real Lipka and actor Evan Peters, the latter could actually be the younger version of the gang’s determined, frenetic ringleader.

Likewise, Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner convincingly portray Borsuk and Allen II, respectively, though they get much less screen time than Peters and Barry Keoghan, who plays Reinhard.

As the audience surrogate, Barry Keoghan keeps up a streak of solid performances that goes back to the 2014 thriller “ ’71” and includes last year’s “Dunkirk” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” Keoghan tends to act with his eyes, and that sensitivity lends itself well to Reinhard’s naivete.

Most of all, though, Layton’s clever gimmick keeps “American Animals” from feeling like a History channel documentary — where reenactments and interviews are stitched together with made-for-TV cheesiness — while also distinguishing the film in a genre filled with copycats.

Any new heist film stands in the shadow of its numerous peers, which “American Animals” acknowledges, panning across a shelf of DVDs including “Ocean’s 11” and “Rififi.” This film’s crooks are dumb enough to take them as instructional, even suiting up in mimicry of “Reservoir Dogs.”

Their laughable inexperience telegraphs that the heist genre is fictional for a reason, which prevents the film from treading too-familiar waters. Similarly, kinetic editing keeps the film light on its feet — match cuts and winking scene transitions occasionally recall the freewheeling energy of Edgar Wright.

Still, the usual heist movie tropes wind up in “American Animals.” The average viewer can probably guess where it all goes without looking up the real-life event on Wikipedia. So when the film drags its feet toward an inevitable conclusion, its two-hour runtime begins to be felt, further exacerbated by a post-heist postmortem.

While this epilogue proves necessary in clarifying the film’s stance on its cast of characters — they’re selfish knuckleheads who can’t recognize their relative privilege — it all feels like requisite hand-wringing. It’s a passing of judgment, the efficacy of which is undermined by telling too much too late. This points to the film’s biggest, if unavoidable, flaw — its characters simply aren’t sympathetic enough for us to care.

Reinhard seeks a life-altering event that will make him a great artist. Likewise, Lipka only wants to prove his uniqueness as an individual. Choosing art theft to achieve those ends is like burning down one’s house to turn off a smoke alarm. Sure, films often feature characters of dubious morals, but their backstories or goals are usually somewhat relatable — a characteristic that the main characters of “American Animals” lack. To call them antiheroes would give them too much credit.

Whether Layton’s skillful direction and the film’s competent performances nullify its inherent frustrations will vary viewer to viewer. But if it does, with “Ocean’s 8” playing a block away from “American Animals,” there won’t be a better time for a weekend heist film double feature.

“American Animals” is currently playing at California Theatre.

Contact Harrison Tunggal at [email protected].