There aren’t enough e’s in “twee” to describe Band Of Robbers, an aggressively cutesy indie comedy that—no joke—takes the characters from Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer and Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, ages them into adulthood, transports them to the modern day, and drops them into a caper picture in the style of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. The movie doesn’t try to hide its source. It opens with a Twain quote printed on the screen, and then jumps to voice-over narration taken directly from the Sawyer/Finn books. The characters are called “Tom Sawyer,” “Huck Finn,” “Becky Thatcher,” and “Injun Joe,” and the plot’s driven by a search for hidden treasure. Band Of Robbers is, essentially, a Twain adaptation—spruced up with as much adorableness as writer-directors Aaron and Adam Nee can muster.
For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with that. Anyone who enjoys Wes Anderson’s playful theatricality is likely to get a lot of out of Band Of Robbers, especially during the set-up phase. Adam Nee also stars in the film as Tom, who in this version of the tale is a bumbling cop, living in the shadow of his more successful detective half-brother Sid (Eric Christian Olsen). Kyle Gallner plays Huck, who’s been in prison since taking the fall for his buddy Tom when they were boys. When Huck gets out of jail, Tom assembles their slacker friends—played by Hannibal Buress and Matthew Gray Gubler—and comes up with an elaborate fake heist, meant to make him a hero and get them closer to the treasure they’ve been looking for since they were kids. But because they’re all such screw-ups, the plan goes sour, putting Tom at odds with his plucky new partner Becky (Melissa Benoist).
All of these actors are low-key and likable—especially Benoist, who’s as charismatic here as she is every week on Supergirl. The Nees also put an interesting twist on Twain by having Tom Sawyer be kind of a doofus, who thinks of himself as more of a local legend than he actually is. He’s Bottle Rocket’s Dignan, basically, and discovering that connection between two great American fictional characters is a real stroke of genius on the part of the brothers.
If only they’d done more with it. In its goofier opening half, Band Of Robbers spends so much time giving every story-point a Sawyer/Finn context that the gimmick eventually becomes stifling. It doesn’t help that the characters chuck verisimilitude out the window by commenting on how bizarre and anachronistic their life is. The members of the gang question Tom’s demand that they make a death-pledge before their mission begins, and they wonder aloud whether the non-Native American Injun Joe’s name is racist. (“I guess he identifies with the culture and the aesthetic?” Tom suggests.) That’s all funny enough, but it does exacerbate the sense that everything in this movie is inorganic, and inconsequential.
And that becomes a real problem once the Nees shift gears down the stretch, moving from aping Wes Anderson to doing their best Coen brothers riffs. It gets harder to laugh at Tom’s idiotic schemes or his friends’ sloppiness once the people they cross paths with actually start getting arrested, stabbed, and shot. Band Of Robbers isn’t excessively violent, but the casualties—coupled with the use of chapter headings and a surging score—suggests a film with much more gravity and purpose than this. There’s an element of parlor trickery here that the movie’s never entirely able to overcome. Really, its best sequence is the closing montage, which strings together about a half-dozen images from the books that didn’t make it into Band Of Robbers’ main story. There, the Nee brothers merely nod to Twain, in scenes that look rougher and more spontaneous—and not so damnably civilized.