A Bag of Hammers

Your complaint that “A Bag of Hammers” is slight, oversimplified, and unrealistic is not unfounded. You have a good point. I hear what you’re saying. And I don’t care. Because “A Bag of Hammers” is also happy, uncynical, and heartfelt, so gosh-darned likable that any flaws in its methods are easily overlooked.

Our heroes in this congenial affair are Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jake Sandvig), a pair of twentysomethings who have been friends since childhood, and for whom childhood is an ongoing process. Alan has a sister, Mel (Rebecca Hall), who waits tables at a waffle house; other than that, neither Alan nor Ben has any family. A few lines of dialogue suggest that all three had chaotic upbringings.

Ben and Alan, as close as brothers and as comfortable as an old married couple, make a living as two-bit grifters. They’ll pose as valets and steal a car left in their care, selling it to a shady auto dealer, or pretend to raise money for charities. They live in a house one of them acquired somehow, and make legitimate income renting out part of the property.

What is interesting so far is that while Ben and Alan are criminals, the movie makes no judgments against them. There’s no suggestion that their behavior is justified, either. It’s just what they do. Perhaps this is one of the film’s flaws that I’m ignoring: These guys are too genuinely nice and compassionate to be such flagrant criminals.

In any event, the tenants in their rental property are Lynette (Carrie Preston), a harried single mother, and Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury), her eager-to-please 12-year-old son. Displaced by a Louisiana hurricane, Lynette and Kelsey are penniless, and Lynette, who lacks most of your basic office skills, is desperate to find a job. Any interest she had in being a good mother has long since dissipated, so Kelsey is left alone a lot. Mel worries he’s being neglected, as does the boy’s teacher (Gabriel Macht). Meanwhile, he becomes a sidekick to Ben and Alan.

This “About a Boy” scenario becomes more complicated — and more poignant — when external events intrude on the little group’s serenity. In other words, stuff gets real, yo. The situation is eventually resolved more happily than realistically, but in the meantime the film is surprisingly elegant in its treatment of serious issues. Director Brian Crano, who wrote the screenplay with Jake Sandvig, achieves an unusual blend of comedy and tragedy, aided by strong, sympathetic performances from the cast. Jason Ritter and young Chandler Canterbury both have scenes that are every bit as emotionally stirring as the other scenes are funny.

Sandvig and Ritter are an affable duo, playing an amusing pair of goodhearted man-children who aren’t, for a change, insufferably obsessed with making pop culture references. (You have no idea what a relief that is.) Having endured the breakdown of their biological families, Ben and Alan have created a makeshift family unit, with Mel and Kelsey as auxiliary members of it. All we have in this harsh world is each other, you know. How can you not enjoy a scrappy comedy that so cheerfully reminds us of this?

B (1 hr., 27 min.; Not Rated, probably R for a lot of harsh profanity, some mature themes.)