When Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig first appear in A Bag Of Hammers, they’re cracking wise on the grounds of a cemetery, where they’re running a scam to boost cars via a fake complementary-valet service. It’s a conspicuously unlikely operation in a way that’s all too common in quirky indie movies, like their friend’s job waitressing at a waffle joint that forces her to wear a waffle hat and do a vaguely lascivious song-and-dance number for every customer who walks in the door. But as the story starts to develop, Ritter and Sandvig have to grapple with the heavy, real-world responsibility of looking after a little boy who loses his mother. So the trouble with A Bag Of Hammers, on both sides of the camera, rests in the push-and-pull between sincerity and indie piffle. Can these friends shake off their hip detachment and do something genuine and important with their lives? And can Brian Crano’s uneven debut feature do likewise?
It’s a struggle all the way for A Bag Of Hammers, though its irony-crusted heart is in the right place. Ritter and Sandvig are an intolerable pair, at least in the early going, when they trade glib one-liners and seem to live every moment in quotation marks. On the side, they play landlord to a desperately poor single mother (Carrie Preston) who’s running her own scam about losing everything in Hurricane Katrina. When the mother exits suddenly, Ritter and Sandvig are left to deal with her neglected 12-year-old son (Chandler Canterbury), who’s bound for a group home if they don’t intervene. The question is whether they can grow up fast enough to assume such a big responsibility.
A Bag Of Hammers flounders whenever it focuses on the pair’s insufferable banter, or allows its soundtrack to do the heavy lifting. But the bigger problem is Crano’s oddly structured screenplay, which holds off so long in bringing the boy under Ritter and Sandvig’s wing that the burden of his care is never felt—it’s as if the decision alone is enough. Yet the film has an earnest quality that asserts itself more and more as it sputters along, and the men reveal more personal reasons to insert themselves into the boy’s life. It’s a good lesson for other films of its ilk: Leaving the world of indie disaffection is an important first step on the road to greatness.