Editor’s Note: We’re counting down the best films of the 2000s decade from 250 all the way to 1. A new film will be added every few days for your reading pleasure. Please be sure to check this blog for other entries. Thanks – MGMT
2001 – Directed by: Barry Levinson; Written by: Harley Peyton; Starring: Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett, and January Jones
There’s a line in Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” that goes – where have you gone Joe Dimaggio are nation turns our lonely eyes to you? In essence, it’s a cry for help from the songwriters asking where all the American heroes have gone. I know how they feel, I lose my film heroes all the time.
What is it about creative genius that is so mercurial? Is it just the law of averages, which simply means over time the word genius loses its luster? Or perhaps it’s the corporate culture so prevalent in Hollywood that a vision becomes distorted or even lost under the sheer weight of the bottom line. Surely, there must be a reason that folks like Scorsese, Spielberg, Allen, and Eastwood are able to keep churning out culturally imperative work, while past masters like Reiner and Friedkin stumble and fail to contribute the quality they were once known for.
I’d like to introduce another guy who has sadly fallen into that latter category – Barry Levinson. Once a writer, and occasional actor for Mel Brooks (look for a hilarious scene featuring Levinson in “High Anxiety”), Levinson broke out from the pack with the incredibly funny and personal “Diner” back in 1982. After that, his filmography reads like a list of films you would include in your own DVD library: “Good Morning, Vietnam”, “Rain Man”, “Bugsy”, “Wag the Dog”, “Sleepers”, and the criminally underrated “Toys”. Where have you gone Barry Levinson? I know that you were a creative force behind TV’s “Homicide: Life on the Street”, which led directly to the greatest TV show of all time in “The Wire”.
I know that you held a vested interest in fostering the tales of your beloved Baltimore. I know that you were a director on par with the greats of your era. So, I ask you, Mr. Levinson – where have you gone?
Directing TV movies (yes, movies for HBO – but TV nonetheless), isn’t where you should be right now. You deserve better. And we deserve better for you. That’s why it troubles me deeply that this very film spelled the beginning of your end. Because it is a good film, almost a great one, the trouble is – you have to watch it twice. “Bandits” is so incredibly nuanced, in its performances, in its delivery, in its appeal that it really takes multiple viewings to appreciate its brilliance.
But Hollywood missed the boat, didn’t they Mr. Levinson? They wouldn’t give you the chance to explain. It was one of those – what have you done for me lately kinda things – wasn’t it? So you played the game, and you made “Envy” and “Man of the Year” back to back for some studio schlub. Well Mr. Levinson, I can’t help you there. I won’t defend those trite, less than stellar piles of “art”. As my Dad always said, “You can’t polish a turd.”
But I will help you with “Bandits”, so here goes. Willis plays a suave and charismatic bank robber, Thornton plays his tic-ridden, hypochondriac partner. The two escape prison and hatch a wonderfully devilish plan that allows them to rob banks without all of the violence and worry about crowds. The partners go to the bank manager’s house the night before the crime. After spending the night with the managers, and oftentimes their families, they go the bank before it opens in the morning, withdraw the cash and never look back. Two things happen given this approach, Willis and Thornton’s legend grows because of how polite they are with their hostages, and they become a media sensation known as the “Sleepover Bandits”.
The media attention is never something the hoodlums craved, and neither was a bored and suppressed housewife in Blanchett. But soon enough, she’s along for the ride too, and never seems to want to leave. As any psychologist will tell you, a dynamic of three is never healthy, especially if Blanchett has feelings for both men, and in turn, they do for her too. As the heat of the media spotlight brightens and the brilliance of their plan erodes with their newfound celebrity, the trio and their relationship begins to deteriorate with it.
Once upon a time, in a land known as Tinsel Town, between a dozen or so rewrites, “Bandits” was based on an Elmore Leonard novel. One of the grittiest and authentic authors working today, Tarrantino used his work for “Jackie Brown”, as did Soderbergh for “Out of Sight”, but “Bandits” doesn’t resemble Leonard’s vision in this incantation at all. I’m not sure where the blame lies for that misdeed, if there’s any blame at all, since Levinson and his actors created something unique and thrilling in their own right here.
And it’s really those moments that propel this film forward, and beg its inclusion on this list. There is a scene so intriguing because of two of its stars, I immediately paused the movie, then re-watched it. The scene involves Thornton and Blanchett in the getting to know you stage. Here they trade their hypochondriac tendencies with each other like tennis players volleying for serve. The more they list, the weirder they appear to one another, the pair soon realize how much they actually have in common – and they rejoice (ever so slightly below the surface) that they’ve found a kindred spirit. It’s really a lovely scene between two top-notch artists at the height of their craft.
“Bandits” never won any awards, and it never should have, but it is an interesting character study. The plot holds up pretty well too. If you’re thinking it’s a dark and brooding caper film – then “Bandits” probably isn’t for you. But if you are looking for a rather enjoyable way to watch a few good actors dazzle the audience and themselves in the process, I urge you to check it out. Keep an eye out for a young January Jones before she became Betty Draper.
The movie never quite steals your heart, as any good bandit should, but it won’t leave you holding the bag without a get-away car either. Sorry – couldn’t resist!
Overall Grade: B
Movie #244 tease: humid, patriotic seasons
The list so far:
246) My Blueberry Nights
249) The Italian Job
250) Laurel Canyon