You’d be forgiven for being sceptical about yet another film called American Something, but having previously sat through films like American Pie and American Ultra, I feel that if it’s good enough for Max Landis, it’s probably not good enough for public consumption.
American Animals bucks that trend to some extent, by putting a fresh spin on the botched-heist movie. It tells the true story of a group of students who attempted to steal some books from a library back in 2004, apparently not understanding the point of libraries. American Idiots might be more appropriate. In fairness, the books in question were extremely rare and valuable, including John James Audubon’s The Birds of America and a first-edition Charles Darwin. Who were they hoping to flog them to, Robin Ince?
Writer/director Bart Layton presents a dramatised version of events featuring Evan Peters (Quicksilver in the X-Men movies) and Barry Keoghan (the excellent oddball from The Killing of a Sacred Deer), intercut with commentary from the real burglars. It’s a well-directed format, although Layton’s insistence on cramming animals into every scene feels a little clunky, particularly in one sequence that reminded me of the bit in The Frozen Ground where Vanessa Hudgens stares at a moose.
The film resembles a version of The Social Network where the protagonists actually get their comeuppance instead of being highly rewarded and eventually ruining the world. It’s refreshing to see real actions having real consequences, but the drama is so heightened that it never feels especially believable. I know it happened in real life but so did a lot of things that aren’t necessarily convincing on film. You could probably watch Diana and come away doubting that such a person ever even existed.
Where Layton’s previous picture The Imposter successfully pulled off a series of dramatic rug-pulls, most of American Animals is spent waiting for a group of unrelatable characters to get caught, a bit like the Mueller probe but not as funny. Slightly interesting but more depressing, this is a film about people who’ve watched too many movies, directed by someone who’s watched too many David Fincher movies.