Skills Like This Dir. Monty Miranda

[Shadow Distribution; 2009]

It starts with the death of a dream. A crowd squirms as the final monologue of a new play flounders. Its writer, Max (screenwriter Spencer Berger), looks on in defeat. It’s a painfully awkward scene, straight out of Rushmore or Waiting for Guffman, culminating in a performance so disastrous it sends one man to the hospital. Max’s play is heartfelt and ambitious; it’s also absolute dreck--and horribly executed, to boot.

Just about the opposite can be said of the film itself. The feature-length debut of Berger, director Monty Miranda, and much of the cast, Skills Like This is a sleek and charming production, but one that doesn’t know what to do with itself.

After his flop, Max declares that he’s finished as a writer. In his despair, he robs a nearby bank, only to discover he’s a first-rate thief. Emboldened by his newfound talent, he falls for the bank teller, Lucy (Kerry Knuppe). And then? It’s a snappy concept, and well-executed, but the story runs out of steam. It meanders into subplots in which undeveloped characters butt heads. The pace comes to a standstill.

At least there’s charm all around. Berger glides through scenes with a careless cool, showy Afro and all. His friends Dave (Gabriel Tigerman) and Tommy (Brian D. Phelan) are amusing, but they seem to come from different films: Tommy is a spastic Owen Wilson impersonation, while Dave mumbles and mutters like an episode of The Office. Their chemistry doesn’t quite work, and their various “quirky” escapades seem tacked on. Max’s descent into kleptomania could have been fascinating and funny, but the film seems intent to amuse us with skits instead.

Miranda’s direction is much like Max himself--cool and uncommitted. An experienced commercial director, Miranda displays a deft hand, quoting everyone from Wes Anderson to Orson Welles. But sometimes it’s too much: The many stylized montages set to “meaningful” pop tunes only slow the pace.

Despite his technical skill, Miranda never commits to a single theme: Is this a wacky rampage or a study in subdued quirk? Is it a riff on the tropes of the crime genre or a straightforward romantic comedy? Surely these can be reconciled, but nobody here seems to know how to do so. Their uncertainty saps the film of its comedy.

Skills Like This is largely bereft of subtext. The dialogue is painfully on-the-nose: When they should be making us chuckle, characters are telling us exactly how they feel. And it's a shame Max’s experience as a writer has little to do with the plot. The film could have explored the similarities between the storyteller and the bank-robber. Both demand our attention, submit us to their will, and force us to surrender something to them, be it our money or our emotions. But Max instead embraces the more shallow M.O. of doing what he does best (in this case, theft).

Miranda and Berger clearly owe a debt to Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson’s debut feature, also a crime comedy. While that is far from a perfect picture, it highlights where where Skills Like This went wrong. In Bottle Rocket, the tropes of the heist film weigh down on the characters in every scene. Comedy comes when the characters’ delusions of criminal grandeur fall flat in the face of reality and their own ineptitude: There are only little bags in which to put the stolen money; a smoke bomb sets off a fire alarm.

Skills Like This fails to establish distinct, coherent realms of aspiration and reality, and the comedy of their conflict is lost. And while a sharp ending redeems the film slightly, Miranda and the gang share their protagonist’s lack of confidence in storytelling. But unlike Max, they have the skills necessary. Now it’s time to figure out what to do with them.

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