Band of Robbers film

'Band of Robbers' Review: Tom and Huck Never Learn, But It's Fun to See Them Flail

Monday, January 18, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Band of Robbers

Directors: Aaron Nee, Adam Nee
Writers: Aaron Nee, Adam Nee
Starring: Kyle Gallner, Adam Nee, Matthew Gray Gubler, Hannibal Buress, Melissa Benoist
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five
Available on demand now.

Mark Twain did shy away from the danger his protagonists faced. People die with remarkable frequency in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even if the characters' exuberant love of swashbuckling derring do can sometimes feel like a mask over the peril in their way – part of Twain's point was that people often lie to themselves about the consequences of their actions in order to feel good about taking them. Likewise, with their aged up and modernized versions of Twain's characters, writer-director brothers Aaron and Adam Nee take a fairly harsh view of what Tom and Huck's adventuring would mean for adults.

And the adult Tom (Adam Nee, pulling triple duty on this picture) and Huck (The Haunting in Connecticut's Kyle Gallner) are every bit the ne'er-do-wells of the 19th century satires, but with the added sadness of never having grown up. At Band of Robbers' start, Huck is released from prison as Tom, having figured nothing else to do with his life, becomes a scheming, crooked, and generally terrible-at-his-job cop, never bothering to try to do the hard work it takes to become the scoundrel-hero of his fantasies. Huck is gung-ho about heading out on the straight and narrow after his latest lockup, but his eternally persuasive friend gets the best of him, roping him and their other childhood friends (including Criminal Minds' Matthew Gray Gubler and Broad City's Hannibal Buress) into a plot to steal a “pirate's” hidden treasure from a local pawn shop. Of course, this being a story, there are complications to this grand plan, including Supergirl herself, Melissa Benoist, as Becky Thatcher, Tom's new partner.

The largest roadblock on the titular heroes' quest for immortality is, of course, reality. They're simply a bumbling group of losers who can't stop dreaming about the great things they wish to do. But boy, if it isn't entertaining. Nee as Tom has a striver's enthusiasm but a slacker's inability to follow through. He gets so excited about his latest plan, but doesn't do enough research to make sure it will work. Huck, in his now centuries-long quest to find a surrogate family across a variety of media, can't bring himself to say no to the closest thing he's ever had to a brother – he knows from the beginning this caper is dangerous, but he loves his friend too much to let him down.

At times, Band of Robbers can lean a little heavily on the tragedy side of its tragicomic themes. Bad things happen because these characters are sadly ill-equipped for the world and they keep trying to pretend they will be able to master it. In a schadenfreude way, that's also funny. Plus, these screw-ups are so charming in their ineptitude that you can't help but root for them. In that way, the movie shares a lot in common with the humorously incapable characters of Wes Anderson, particularly his debut, Bottle Rocket.

It is in the more overt homages to Wes Anderson that the Nees fail. Or, perhaps, the homages don't go far enough. There are a number of carefully balanced shots, straight-on to characters or objects, that recall Anderson's diorama style. Given the overall shot construction of the movie, which is done in a way that looks handsome enough, if somewhat pedestrian in that indie dramedy way, these bursts of Andersonian quirk distract. They either should avoid such stylistic flourishes when they don't fit with the overall flavor of the movie, or they should put the same care into making every shot of a piece with the silly storybook world they create in these brief moments.

But still, Band of Robbers does not need to be full of painterly vistas to succeed in what it's trying to do. It's a movie featuring literary characters, and its goals are similarly literary. It is a story that turns on the words of its characters and its plot devices, and those things are solid from a narrative construction standpoint. It places the stress of time on top of these characters, who get a little ragged by the end of it. But, just as Twain left them, the illogical optimism continues through to the end. These guys won't stop adventuring until the day one of those quests turns sour. There's some inspiration to be found in that, even if it's a little silly and a lot dumb.

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