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Cleolinda: ***

Starring: Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett, Troy Garity

Rated PG-13 for some sexual content, language and violence.

Bandits is an amiable enough movie, and a good rental. But, watching the DVD, you get the sense that a hell of a lot more fun was had by the cast and crew than by the viewer. Interviews at the end show us that improvisation was encouraged—and often resulted in scene rewrites; that the cast had good chemistry; and that a great deal of thought went into the script and production design. The film itself is witty but gentle at heart, and you may find the ending predictable and/or contrived, but so ingeniously that it’s almost satisfying.

There’s one thing I really wish I had known before I started watching the movie: That it was, for the most part, based on real people. Not a true story, per se; the Kate Wheeler (Blanchett) character has been invented and inserted to see, as the interviews note, “to see what happens when a woman comes between these two men.” These two men, however, are based on real “Sleepover Bandits” also named Joe and Terry (played here by Willis and Thornton, respectively), and several plot points that seem oddly contrived turn out to be based on truth; this is the kind of movie based on a story so bizarre that it seems unbelievable as fiction.

(Most disturbing revelation on the DVD extras: Joe and Terry’s impromptu prison escape at the film’s beginning was actually filmed at a real prison. So? Well, those prisoner extras?
Were real prisoners. Did it not occur to anyone that filming a fake prison escape might, y’know, rile up the prisoners at all? Give them ideas? As Joe tears out of the exercise yard in a hijacked cement mixer, the prisoners are shown shaking the chain-link fence and chanting, “Joe! Joe! Joe! Joe!” Am I the only person wondering what lockdown must have been like that night? Oh, and by the way, the real Joe did escape in a cement mixer. Only, Terry wasn’t with him then—the guy who was, say the writers, was shot and killed through the cab window by the prison guard snipers. Oh, lovely.)

One thing the extras do not reveal, nor the movie itself, is exactly why Joe and Terry ended up in prison in the first place. You could easily see Joe landing in the pokey for, let’s say, a bar fight gone terribly awry (he has “anger-management issues”), but he knows way too much about banks to have never robbed one before (wow, I learned a lot about all-clear signals today). As for Terry, who seems to spend a good deal of his time on crusades like protesting the prison commissary’s refusal to sell fresh garlic (again, a real-life plot point), you can’t imagine what in the hell kind of crime he could have committed. He just seems too—
fastidious for crime. Also too itchy. But he does seem to have an alarming aptitude for planning crime, and never seems to feel a novice’s guilt, so let’s say it was white-collar embezzling and call it a day.

So we’re given these two characters—oh, and Joe’s stoner-voiced stuntman cousin Harvey as the frontman/getaway driver; his dream is to light himself ablaze in a full-body fire—and then we add Kate, the manic, Bonnie Tyler-loving, unappreciated rich housewife. Her character is well-summarized in one key line: “I’d rather feel too much than not at all.” Until that moment, you’re thinking she’s a sheltered headcase with horrible taste in music, until you hear this line and it all snaps together—the flamboyant flame-colored hair, the melodramatic taste in music (she quotes from “Total Eclipse of the Heart” like it’s T. S. Eliot), the hellbat driving, the sudden glee in becoming an “outlaw.”

She’d also rather love too much than not at all (I’ve seen saltines more exciting than her negligent husband), and declares that she can’t choose between the two bank robbers once a love triangle develops. One of the best (and best-known) lines in the movie is Bruce Willis’ challenge: “Good-looking or itchy?” This was where I found myself having a problem. I do not, strictly speaking, really like Bruce Willis as an actor all that much. He’s fine, but I don’t leap at chance to see his movies or any-thing. I particularly do not find him very “good-looking.” But his character, as written, was extremely charismatic—yeah, he has “anger-management issues,” but you saw this in action maybe twice? It never jeopardized the robberies themselves— he was usually the cool one, compared to the kvetching, antique-fearing Thornton— and he never mistreats Kate. From her point of view, Joe thus has no visible down-sides, and that’s a hole in the “I can’t choose between you” logic. The question is also not fair to Terry; it should read, “Virile or sensitive?,” because that’s what she’s choosing between—or, to put it another way, “Occasionally psycho or perpetually itchy?” Kinda gives it a different spin, doesn’t it?

At the end of the day, I decided to forgive the scenario for one reason and one reason alone. Well, yes, it’s comedy, and therefore not strictly bound to the laws of rational thinking, but that’s not why. Think of a male bank robber with two groupie girlfriends, and while it might raise your eyebrow, you’re kinda thinking, “Well, yeah, the lucky bastard.” Now think of a woman with two men who are completely willing to share, and on her terms, too. Don’t see that everyday, huh? And I say it’s about time—I say rock on, Your Cateness.

P.S. One of the DVD extras, the alternate ending, is presented with an audio commentary by Blanchett that explains that she was the one who came up with it, and while you’re left with the sweet thought that it presaged an event in her own life, the alternate ending is way disturbing.

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