American Animals review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
American Animals attempts to take on a tricky picture that wants to both tell the truth of a college heist gone wrong and also play it up for stylish laughs. It’s this blurring of realities, however, when the film incorporates interviews from the true men behind the robbery in an oddly quirky manner, the film falters at trying to weave some Adam McKay style comedy out of the absurdity and frustrations. Despite a solid production, the film replicates the heist aspect by portraying itself more as a film with better planning than execution.
The criminals in question are Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk, played by actors for the dramatization and playing themselves for interviews. When the heist goes down, they’re all enrolled at Transylvania University and find themselves in an aimless stupor. They mill about campus trying to find something to do and take some direction in their life. And then, after a tour of the campus library, one of them has a terrible idea to rob the archived paintings in the library valued at $12 million.
Most heist films meant to be slick and entertaining, as American Animals aims to be, is creating a relatable nature; a desire for the steal. But how much can we identify with these characters when their heist comes from little more than something to do. I can’t exactly say I enjoyed the precision editing of how they imagine the caper going off in their heads like an Edgar Wright film when their inspiration comes from watching a bunch of students light a grocery cart on fire.
I say this only because the one part of their plan that goes horribly wrong is their subduing of the librarian that opens the archive for viewing. In their heads, they imagine they’ll knock her out cold and they can go about their business. Instead, they hold her down as she is screaming and crying for her life. Most important to note is that this is not staged in a comical manner as though the heist has degraded into slapstick absurdity. It’s terrifying and the desire to see if these kids can successfully swipe the paintings out of the library becomes far less intriguing, despite the expert level of direction in how this scene goes down.
The film becomes so ingrained with tracking the story that varies from the criminals that the tone becomes vague. On one level, one might think we’re meant to identify with the despair of a nihilistic youth that leads to robberies such as these. But then in the bickering of interviews with how certain events went down, the film takes odd shifts between the bigger themes and the crazier aspects, ultimately leading to a film that just kind of shrugs at the crazy without saying much about it. Yeah, the art theft was pretty bizarre and very off-putting but, look, their first attempt involved terrible old people make-up! How wacky and not at all distracting compared to the rest of the film.
American Animals merely finds a handful of theatrical elements to exploit from such an unusual caper. It’s very much akin to if Adam McKay were to take a whack at the true story behind Masterminds, another true crime story with people making stupid mistakes. It’s as though the real people burst into the room while the director was telling this story and all the tonally sound segments are sacrificed more in the name of respectability towards these individuals who went onto somewhat successful lives. And there’s only so much clear-headed direction that can be mustered with so much input and no focused direction in what the film is trying to say. Somewhere between a documentary and a docudrama, the movie never lands proper on either.