There's a certain manifold, id-fueled whimsy to Barry Levinson's lighter movies that make them feel like carousel rides for grown-ups. From "Diner" to "Wag the Dog," his pictures are packed with enjoyably idiosyncratic characters, every one of them a frolicsome horse of a different color that from their opening scenes feel like friends (even the amoral ones).
In "Bandits" it's a pair of resourceful serial bank robbers and a maniacally disheartened housewife whom you can't wait to take for a ride.
Conspicuously charming, mannerly Joe Blake (Bruce Willis) and precariously nervous hypochondriac Terry Collins (Billy Bob Thornton) are amusingly winning jailbirds from the moment they spontaneously hijack an unexpectedly accessible cement mixer to bust out of the slammer. You cheer them on as they barrel the rig through back yard fences to evade the cops, and you grin when Joe says, "Ma'am, don't forget your purse" as they carjack a Subaru from a suburbanite.
To secure some on-the-run funds, they knock over a small town bank using a highlighter pen as a gun -- and Joe stops to flirt with a pretty teller. Looking for a place to hide, they pull into an open garage door and find themselves holding hostage a horny teenage couple, home alone for the weekend, who find their predicament incredibly cool.
Meanwhile Cate Blanchett is instantly effervescent, alluring and a little ridiculous as Kate Wheeler, a dedicated domestic who tosses her flaming red hair and loudly sings along with Bonnie Tyler's power ballad "Holding Out For A Hero" while preparing a fabulous meal for her neglectful yuppie husband. When he comes home and turns down dinner to go to the gym, a frustrated Kate finally cracks, becoming an emotional loose cannon and speeding away from her life like a manic (to the tune of Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" on the car stereo).
Moments later she nearly runs over Terry with her car while he's on his way to rendezvous with Joe for another bank job. Terry takes her to their hideout -- mostly because she won't let him out of her sight ("I'm feeling a little fragile right now. I don't think I should be alone.") -- opening the door for a hilarious three-character roundelay of peculiar romantic contention.
Levinson narrates this mirthful lunacy though an "America's Most Wanted"-type TV show that's running a retrospective on Joe and Terry, who in the course of the picture become famous, popular anti-heroes, known as "The Sleepover Bandits." They stick up bank managers at their homes, spend the night, then go with them to work in the morning to complete the robbery.
This structuring is a bit of a gimmick, but it doesn't interfere with the endlessly clever execution of this fast-paced yet deliberative comedy that has charisma to spare.
Blanchett is more brilliant than ever as the dazed, vulnerably sexy and completely unstable Kate, who latches on to the outlaws as the ultimate act of rebellion before falling in love with one of them, and then the other. Thornton is oddly ingenious, exploiting his real-life superstitions as a way of getting deep inside his character's strangely neurotic calm. And Willis exudes pent-up sad dog charm as the gang leader with questionable smarts.
All three plumb their characters' souls for authenticity and human irony that give "Bandits" a surprising depth to go with its capricious wit -- so much so that you really start to care how the romantic triangle will be resolved, since Kate can't make up her mind about whom she loves.
But Levinson gets carried away with this stuff at times, burning almost two reels on overly-sincere, cutely romantic musical montages of oddly tender moments between Kate and Joe, Kate and Terry or all three at once. He also awkwardly bookends the main story with parts of a heist gone wrong and he embraces a grossly implausible ending.
Although by that point you're willing to forgive a little absurdity because after going softhearted for a while, the trio gets back to their bickering and the movie comfortably returns to its layers upon layers of droll, vivacious joviality.
I wanted to site examples of the many of playful running gags in "Bandits" and of how even the string of supporting characters (the randy teenagers, the bank managers, Joe's inept stuntman cousin who drives a getaway car) are brimming with entertainingly screwball characteristics that give the film more layers of humanity and humor. But I'm afraid I'm droning on because I enjoyed "Bandits" so much. So I'm going to stop now and just say this kind of intelligent yet insane, grown-up yet gleeful, multi-faceted merriment trumps pre-fabricated throwaway comedies like "America's Sweethearts" or "Legally Blonde" any day of the week.