Most of the time, the indie-quirk genre is well-nigh intolerable, filled with broadly sketched characters speaking and behaving in ways that bear little relation to actual human behavior, in service of some sophomoric point about conformity or love or family. Skills Like This is only a partial exception. Aspiring more toward slacker comedy in the Office Space or Bottle Rocket vein than aching poignancy, Skills Like This is never great. But for its first half-hour, it’s more fitfully amusing than a movie about a bank-robbing playwright ought to be.
The preposterously frizzy-haired Spencer Berger (who also wrote the film) plays the playwright, a quintessential hipster doofus whose writing is so bad that his grandfather has a near-fatal heart attack during one of his plays. (It isn’t every day that someone “sees something so shitty they almost die from it,” cracks Berger’s dimwitted friend Brian D. Phelan.) Feeling he has nothing to lose, Berger walks into a bank, swipes the guard’s gun, and walks out with a sack full of money. In the days that follow, he discovers he has a facility for taking things that don’t belong to him. Soon he has a girlfriend and a new sense of purpose, such that by the end of the film, we’ve wandered inevitably into that land of fuzzy positivism where indie-quirks scramble when they want to justify their existence.
And that’s too bad, because at the start, Skills Like This is loose and funny, jumping easily from absurdity to idiocy with no obvious plan. (The MVP of the movie’s first third is Phelan, who responds to Berger’s rob-from-the-rich plan with, “He’s Red Robin… I’m lookin’ at Red Robin over here,” and who immediately begins growing a moustache after the robbery, claiming, “Nature has provided us with natural disguises.”) But then the movie devolves into a series of increasingly pat, ill-thought-out setpieces, presided over by a hero who can’t really sell sincerity while he’s sporting three-day stubble and a massive jewfro. So long as Berger and his crew are riffing dryly and romanticizing recklessness, Skills Like This is where it needs to be. But when they start using their “personal journey of self-discovery” as an excuse to drive drunk and terrorize local businesses, it becomes clear that these guys aren’t free spirits. They’re assholes.