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‘American Animals’ Film Review: Entertainingly Fizzy Heist Movie Defies Expectations

This squirrelly rundown of a real-life art caper engineered by bored college kids fuses narrative and documentary, fantasy and reality

Surely the 21st century equivalent to the old Hollywood trope “Let’s put on a show!” is, judging by the movies that get made, “Let’s pull off a heist!” What that says about the evolution of our wish-fulfillment fantasies is a tad worrisome, so it’s refreshing that “American Animals,” which recreates and dissects a real 2004 robbery committed by a quartet of thrill-seeking college kids, grasps that there’s something singularly regrettable in how our popular art glorifies criminality.

And yet, for a good deal of its running time, writer-director Bart Layton’s slick, music-fueled assemblage of recreated narrative and documentary manages to be as deftly comic and suspenseful as the bank job movies from which Layton, and the incident’s perpetrators, took inspiration. Until, that is, the reality of bad decisions and corrosive entitlement act as an all-too-necessary dampener.

The crime was known as the “Transy Book Heist.” It centered on the rare-book collection at Lexington, Kentucky’s Transylvania University, and the fervid belief of four local students and children of privilege — Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk, and Charles “Chas” Allen II — that their circumscribed lives (and pocketbooks) would be irreparably richer if they could mastermind an art theft. You know, like they do in the movies, with blueprints, surveillance, connections, disguises, precision timing, and a clever getaway.

For budding artist Spencer (Barry Keoghan, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), talented but dulled by college expectations, the goal is a “life-altering experience” that could inform his art. Brashly confident Warren (Evan Peters, “American Horror Story”), meanwhile, glibly dismissive of his athletic scholarship, sees the chance to prove he’s truly special.

They sell the idea to reserved accounting student Eric (Jared Abrahamson, Netflix’s “Travelers”) and manor-born fitness freak Chas (Blake Jenner, “Everybody Wants Some!!”), and with assurances by Warren that a secret contact will purchase a pilfered folio of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” and a first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” a year of planning ensues.

Quickly, almost too easily, the movie shows how reliably, addictively entertaining these kinds of stories can be when the syncopated cutting, music cues, larkish humor, and camera virtuosity (thanks to editor Nick Fenton, cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland, and scorer Anne Nikitin) make wannabe lawbreakers look like anti-heroes. It’s both old-school and meta, with nods to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (seen in a clip from the boys’ video research), “Goodfellas” (shot references), and “Reservoir Dogs” when Warren decides to crib Tarantino’s color-coded naming scheme, and someone bristles at getting called Mr. Pink.

When Udo Kier shows up as a mysterious fence in an Amsterdam-set scene, it’s ideal casting, as if he’d been conjured by the boys’ movie dreams of the perfect underground connection.

Because at the same time, seeds of reality-blurring doubt are being planted, not surprising given that Layton’s auspicious debut as a documentarian (and feature filmmaker) was the wily, fact-versus-fiction kidnapping saga “The Impostor.” He takes a similarly hybrid approach here by fusing the build-up of the plotting with interviews Layton filmed of the real quartet, their differing memories, and sobering sense of reflection, priming us for the sideways tension that comes when fantasy meets execution. “I, Tonya” did something similar, just putting the subjects’ words in the actors’ mouths, but the effect is the same: calling attention to the strange elasticity of a “true” story.

It can’t be easy on actors who know they’re being juxtaposed with their subjects’ faces, but everyone expertly handles the gradual wipe from cocky exhilaration and superficial concern to day-of, days-after panic. Keoghan in particular makes good use of his offbeat features, which suggest a kind of haunted intelligence, while Peters imbues Warren with the right mix of insouciance and emptiness.

That things don’t go as planned is no secret, but Layton handles the details of the robbery and aftermath, centered on the handling of librarian Betty Jean Gooch (Ann Dowd) with a vigorous emotional authenticity and an appropriately pressurized seriousness. (The tone is not, gratefully, that of Preston Sturges’ hilarious murder farce “Unfaithfully Yours.”)

All that’s left is how today’s disparate audiences might view a movie that, while certainly not admiring of its do-badders, might still be seen as giving undue attention to the fortune-seeking escapades of the already fortunate, even if we learn that justice has been served. It’s a fair criticism, because the end of “American Animals” is more like a void revealed — which isn’t surprising — than an ending neatly tied up.

The news is, sadly, all too consumed still with crime story post-mortems about “good kids” who screw up, but at least “American Animals” wants to leave you wondering about how we tell stories, and whose we tell, rather than simply satisfied you saw one told well.