The word "quirky" gets used a lot by filmmakers trying to explain their characters. It's supposed to be a compliment, describing charming eccentrics whose behavior defies expectations. Too often, though, it's just code for "annoying weirdoes some hack thought would be funny."
Every once in a while, someone actually understands the concept and makes things interesting. Such is the case with "Bandits," an otherwise formulaic crime comedy whose saving grace is the steadfast looniness of its characters.
Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton play Joe Blake and Terry Collins, unlikely friends who escape from prison together. Joe is impulsive and self-confident, while Terry is a highly intelligent hypochondriac who obsesses over every detail. The pair figure out a way to commit their robberies without having to worry about guards or cops, simply walking into the bank manager's home and holding his or her family hostage until the safe is unlocked in the morning. Joe and Terry soon become known as "The Sleepover Bandits," whose exploits are followed everywhere by a self-important TV host (Bobby Slayton).
With the help of their partner, Harvey (Troy Garity), Joe and Terry are on a roll until Terry meets Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett), an emotionally fragile housewife looking to escape her boring life. Before long, both Joe and Terry have fallen in love with Kate, and she with them both of them. As she puts it, "Together, you make the perfect man."
Director Barry Levinson ("Wag the Dog") has a long comedic rmgoing all the way back to "The Carol Burnett Show," and he and his cast spin some sublime moments out of Harley Peyton's already-amusing script. From Terry's recitation of the Merck Manual to Kate's penchant for belting out Bonnie Tyler songs, "Bandits" is full of little touches that take it beyond its standard criminals-with-a-heart-of-gold premise.
You can't do all this without a good cast, and Levinson has a great one. Willis is deadly dull in lesser movies, but when he's given something to work with, he has proven to be a remarkably subtle actor. As Joe, he mixes arrogance and outbursts of violence with calm politeness and unerring instincts. This is a guy who doesn't think things through because he doesn't have to, and who knows just how slick he really is.
The chameleonic Thornton ("A Simple Plan") obviously has fun playing Terry, who is a hyper-analytical wreck, especially when he's around Joe. If Thornton didn't ad-lib most of the time, he certainly makes it look like he did, and he occasionally threatens to run off with the entire film there's a bar scene that is (quite literally) fall-down funny.
In the middle of all this is Blanchett ("The Gift"), who is simply too talented to be relegated to "the girlfriend," even if that were the role she'd been handed. Luckily, it's not. Kate's behavior is unstable, but it's also strangely logical and perfectly understandable. Her desire for excitement and refusal to accept anyone else's definition of her make her exactly the kind of woman two oddball crooks would fall for.
Special mention also should go to Garity (who is, incidentally, the son of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden). Harvey's big dream is to become a professional stuntman, and his idea of a good time is doing things like rolling cars over and setting himself on fire. It's a bit part, but Garity's offbeat performance helps make the character nearly as memorable as the leads. Not bad for a sidekick.
The one big problem with "Bandits" is its running time, a bloated two hours for a movie that shouldn't have been much longer than 90 minutes. Levinson and Peyton repeat themselves far too often, apparently assuming that what's funny once will invariably be funny five or six times. With a weaker cast, this might have dragged the movie down and made it insufferable. With this group, however, it's an opportunity to put a new twist on something that's been done a million times before, and finally give "quirky" back its good name.