Inept criminals pop up fairly often in comedies, and not without reason -- most comedy is dependent on something going wrong, and the sizable majority of crooks trip themselves up somewhere, otherwise we'd never know they were crooks. First-time director Monty Miranda flips this concept in his film
Skills Like This, a quirky little comedy about a guy who discovers he's a pretty good criminal...and pretty lousy at nearly everything else. As Skills Like This opens, we witness the opening (and presumably closing) night of the latest work by struggling playwright Max Solomon (Spencer Berger), a drama called "The Dancing Onion" that seems destined for a spot on Leonard Pinth-Garnell's television anthology "Bad Experimental Theater." The play is so awful that Max's grandfather suffers a heart attack during the final act, and Max goes into hiding for two weeks, emerging for lunch with his two best friends -- nervous and high-strung office drone Dave (Gabriel Tigerman) and easily excitable would-be badass Tommy ( Brian D. Phelan). Max tells his friends that he's realized he's a failure as a writer and needs to find a new career just as Tommy goes off on a fresh tangent about his dreams of being an outlaw. Impulsively, Max grabs Tommy's stocking cap and glasses, walks across the street to a small bank, and grabs the guard's pistol. Holding the weapon to his head, he threatens to blow his brains out if someone doesn't give him some cash, and a few moments later he runs out of the bank holding a bag with 50,000 dollars in it. Max is giddy with the thrill of the robbery, and realizes that robbery might just be his true calling, a notion he puts to the test by clearing out the register at a convenience store on the way home. Tommy is jazzed over Max's new life of crime, and Dave's wife, Lauren ( Jennifer Batter), is unexpected turned on by the proximity of real danger, but Dave is appalled and suggests they should return the money with a letter of apology. The friends head out for a few drinks to discuss the plan, and at the bar Max bumps into Lucy ( Kerry Knuppe), the pretty teller who handed him the cash. While Lucy intends to call the police, she's charmed enough by Max that she spends the night with him instead, and Max decides robbery is the life for him until he discovers that the police are scouring the town for "The Suicide Bandit" and his new enthusiasm for stealing has unexpected consequences for Lucy and his friends. Spencer Berger, who plays Max, also wrote the screenplay for Skills Like This (based on a story he penned with Gabriel Tigerman, who plays Dave), and he was clever enough to give himself a part well suited to his abilities. With his outsized Jew-fro and a face that can communicate a hundred varieties of joy and puzzlement, Berger is the best thing in Skills Like This, and he carries the picture through a handful of slow spots. While Tigerman and Brian D. Phelan (who also produced) get plenty of screen time as Dave and Tommy (especially in a pair of subplots in which Tommy tries to land a job and searches for his stolen low-rider bicycle), they usually seem to be trying too hard for their own good, and the forced cluelessness of their characters suggests someone on this project saw a few times too many. But if the screenplay's narrative path seems a bit fuzzy at times, director Monty Miranda brings a clean and imaginative visual style to the material and generates an engaging atmosphere that suits the action. And Kerry Knuppe is a real find as Lucy, revealing a playful and insouciant charm that makes her a perfect match for Berger. When it works, Napoleon Dynamite is an engaging and genuinely funny indie comedy, but when it lags it feels more like a knock-off of Skills Like This that doesn't possess a fraction of Bottle Rocket Wes Anderson's imagination; fortunately, the good moments outnumber the bad, but maybe in the future Miranda ought to consider working with a cast who aren't quite so invested in their sometimes faulty material.
All Movie Guide - Mark Deming