Out of control
A star vehicle where the stars look hapless, the bank robber flick Bandits is yet another reason to think director Barry Levinson’s best films might be behind him.
To Levinson’s credit, the man makes a lot of movies, and even the best make bad ones. After putting out classics like Rain Man and The Natural in the ‘80s and peaking with Avalon in 1990, he’s made some stinkers (Toys, Jimmy Hollywood). Bandits represents Levinson at his worst. Aspiring to be a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde but ending up as something more akin to Legend of Billie Jean, this is a movie where normally reliable stars look like they can’t act for shit.
Two buddies (Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton) escape from prison and knock over a bank with a highlighter pen. They come up with the oh-so-clever idea of sleeping over at a bank manager’s house the night before they rob him, so no guards will be there when they commit their crime. For this, they are dubbed “The Sleepover Bandits.” Get it? Sleepover Bandits, because they slept over! What a gas!
Along the way, a kooky jilted wife named Kate (Cate Blanchett) winds up in the gang through various slapstick shenanigans, including Thornton getting hit by a car and bumping his head. Kate becomes the wacky love interest for Willis and Thornton, who both bed Kate in the movie and wind up sharing her. Maybe some folks think that’s cute, but I think it’s gross and unsanitary.
So Blanchett is the wacky one, Willis is the hot-tempered mastermind, and Thornton is the hypochondriac. If you happen to be in the mood for something tiresome, get a load of Thornton and all his silly ailments shtick. He thinks he has tinnitis and brain tumors and things, a regular Felix Unger. It’s so not funny, it’s scary.
When a film features Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett, it carries great expectations. Levinson has been known to let his actors improv (Robin Williams’ verbal wanking in Good Morning Vietnam; the whole cast jerking off in Wag the Dog). The problem here is that you can feel Willis and company doing improv. These moments do not blend in; they stand out like Woody Allen at a Britney Spears concert.
While that technique has worked in the past in some of Levinson’s realistically grounded films (best example: Diner), it doesn’t work in a goofball comedy where nothing in the plot feels natural. Maybe Bandits is a drama? Well, if it is, its goofiness keeps it from building up much dramatic tension. Is it a comedy? If it is, it has the sad distinction of coming in under Corky Romano on the laugh meter.
With a film like this, things just feel better when the actors adhere to a script, rather than trying to impress the film crew with just how quirky they can be. Because all of these actors have been so good before, I think this is a clear case of a director losing control of his production. He’s made an otherwise professional and solid group look amateurish.
To take a great actress like Blanchett and place her in a series of filler music-video montages, including a brutally embarrassing one where she cooks and struts to the tune of Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need a Hero,” is nothing short of cinematic crime. Screws to Levinson for using U2’s “Beautiful Day” twice in his malignant movie. Now, a song that I liked will forever remind me of Thornton’s shameless mugging.
When the highlight of a film is Willis’ real-life daughter letting out a monster belch, you’ve got trouble. Bandits will be on my Top 10 Worst list for 2001. Oh, yes … it will be.