American Animals

You know the drill: make a true crime movie, put the word "American" in the title to make it sound important, gather together a hip young cast, have them drop a million F-bombs to add grittiness, et voilà – you've got yourself a standard middling Sundance premiere.

American Animals recounts the misadventures of four college students who, in 2004, attempted to steal rare books worth millions of dollars from Lexington, Kentucky's Transylvania University. And while the film itself is by no means terrible, I must confess that the only thing I got out of it was that there's an actual place called Transylvania University.

Writer/director Layton comes from a documentary background, and American Animals frequently cuts to current-day interviews with the real people involved in the robbery. (Ironically, three of the four men are more movie star handsome than the actors who portray their 2004 selves.) Watching these would-be book thieves share their (often contradictory) recollections is an instant tipoff that they did not get away with the crime. But American Animals never makes you wonder just how or why things went wrong. They were clearly dumb kids with a dumb idea. The outcome was inevitable.

Because of this inevitability, I found myself bored, wondering what the point of the movie was supposed to be. At first, Layton seems to be saying something about the unreliability of memory – employing some self-conscious film trickery to get the point across – but he soon abandons this theme, only to return to it at the very end. Otherwise, I struggled to find anything relevant or entertaining about the film. At nearly two hours, it's overlong by a good twenty minutes, and it treats its goofy subject matter too seriously, especially in the shouty third act. In a sense, Layton was as deluded as his sophomoric bandits: he had big-time pretensions but made a small-time movie.