American Animals starts off like a fun heist movie — until reality comes crashing down in a tonal shift that has no right to work as well as it does.
Director: Bart Layton
Summary: Lexington, Kentucky, 2004: Spencer and Warren dream of remarkable lives beyond their middle-class suburban existence. They head off to colleges in the same town, haunted by the fear they may never be special in any way. Spencer is given a tour of his school's incredibly valuable rare book collection and describes it all to Warren. Suddenly, it hits them — they could pull off one of the most audacious art thefts in recent history, from the university's special collections library. Convinced they can get away with it, they recruit two other friends. Suddenly, the dance of knowing what happens if they cross the line becomes all-consuming.
The saying goes that that truth is often stranger than fiction, and sometimes that fact can really take the fun out of storytelling. The reality of the world is that bad things happen to good people, bad people are often rewarded, and shit happens. That's why we like movies that help remind us that sometimes the good guys win: so we continue to fight in the real world. American Animals is not about the good guys winning — not even a little — and takes the glamour off of the heist genre to show the ugly parts underneath.
American Animals is about a bunch of selfish jerks that decide to steal a bunch of old books because they think it will be the thing to give their empty lives meaning. Think Ocean's 11, or maybe in this case more like Logan Lucky — the type of movie that plays out exactly how you think it will. We talk to the real guys who committed this crime in the present day as we watch the events unfold in the past.
It's funny to hear the people who were there talking about not remembering all of the details the same and speculating about the parts where someone might have lied or made something up. We even see them try to pass off some of the blame for whose idea it actually was to commit the crime. We see the planning and the sneaking around and a bunch of college-age idiots thinking they are going to be millionaires when we know, from the present-day interviews, that they fail. The degree to which they fail is what we're watching unfold.
Everything starts off funny, and then the reality of the situation hits — and it hits hard. Not just for the people involved, but for the audience as well. We forget about the many people that can be hurt when someone commits a terrible crime. It's a tonal shift that shouldn't work; it should be so jarring it gives you whiplash, and in a way it does. However, that's also a good thing, because it fits with the harsh reminder about the people involved.
That's not to say that the movie is perfect. There are a few pacing issues, and there are times when the humor doesn't entirely work. That tonal shift, also, is not something that is going to work for everyone. It might be enough to ruin the movie for some people. This is one of those narrative true stories that seem a bit like a documentary. The performances are good, but they aren't world-changing either. The writing is also fine, again, not world-changing, which really describes this movie to a T. It's just fine, and the most unique thing about it is the tonal change.
American Animals takes the glam off of the heist genre and shows us what would happen if a bunch of college-age idiots tried to be the guys from Ocean's 11. The movie lets us see the guys in the future so we know they fail, and it's like a slow-motion train wreck that's funny and then very not funny.