American Animals opens at the Roxy Fri., June 29.
What can I say? American Animals is a stupid, forgettable movie about a bunch of bros who try and fail to steal an expensive piece of art from their university’s library and get caught.
Bart Layton directs and writes the picture, which it turns out is, in fact, based on a true story. I say it this way because the movie plays around with what to me has always been an overrated question about how we tell true stories, the line between truth and fiction, lies, exaggeration, elaboration, the question of who can we really trust? But in fact, four boys really did come together to try to steal a piece of art from their school’s campus in Kentucky in 2004, and this is a movie about that heist.
Evan Peters plays the group’s adventure-loving, blindly optimistic ringleader, Warren. He, in turn, recruits Spencer, the film’s moral compass, played by Barry Keoghan, whose sleepy face intoxicated me in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) and whose talent is utterly wasted here. Later, they decide they need more people and pick up Chas (Blake Jenner) and Eric (Jared Abrahamson). They’ve each got their movie quirks (Spencer’s a good kid toeing the line between timidity and reason, Eric’s really into fitness), but they have in common a characteristic bro-manship and shallow understanding of the world mistaken for depth that makes them ultimately indistinguishable from one another. Why are we even doing this, you might ask? They are bored by their lives, underwhelmed by the promises of career and family after college and, what the hey? It’s a victimless crime.
In between the unfolding drama of planning and execution, Layton cuts to interviews with the real-life players, who are fresh out of prison. (Kind of a spoiler? It’s obvious from the start that they don’t succeed in pulling off the heist, but maybe I’ve stolen your hope that these brats are still behind bars. For that, I’m sorry.)
The movie’s marketing makes it sound like these kids were steeped in film trivia and thus motivated to pull off the library heist as inspired by stylized capers of the time. That’s a story I’d like to see, but American Animals is surprisingly light on allusions to other films. We get a pretty uninspired reference to the “Why am I Mr. Pink?” scene from Reservoir Dogs, but it’s so lamely written that all it really does is make you wish you were instead watching Reservoir Dogs. (Joe’s 1992 response, “Because you’re a faggot, alright?” would never play in an American motion picture today, but I just want to go on record as saying that this is a perfect joke, the opposite of homophobic, a joke with layers and nuance, a joke the caliber of which American Animals can never touch — but I digress.) To be fair, it is pretty funny when the real-life Spencer says offhandedly in his interview: “Reservoir Dogs is probably my least favorite Quentin Tarantino movie.”
It’s mildly amusing to watch how these boys bumble through the planning and execution of their heist, but this is supposed to be a mind-blowing comedy, biopic and sobering morality tale that instead half delivers on all three. We’d have been better off with a breezy Netflix documentary, or better still, stopping short at John Falk’s comprehensive 2007 Vanity Fair article on the subject, “Majoring in Crime.”
Again I ask, does the veracity of the particulars of the heist really matter? Is there any drama to be found in the possibility of an unreliable narrator? Or is the movie just wasting time?