Bandits is delightful almost in spite of itself: It drags and sputters, gets distracted when it wants to get down and can no more find its rhythm than a drummer with both hands behind his back. Yet Thornton and Willis make for amiable protagonists, keeping things moving even when director Barry Levinson and writer Harley Peyton grind back into neutral.
Joe's a slick, spontaneous hustler who breaks out of prison on a whim (using a concrete-mixing truck) and wastes his hard-stolen money on women; Terry's a brainy hypochondriac with a litany of fears, among them Charles Laughton, antique furniture and Benjamin Disraeli's hair. Separately, they're as useless as a leaky water pistol in a holdup; together, they're the perfect man, at least in the estimation of Kate Wheeler (Cate Blanchett, who appeared in Pushing Tin with Thornton), the bored, Bonnie Tyler-obsessed housewife who literally crashes into Terry and invites herself into the bank robbers' lives.
There is nothing at all novel about Bandits, which feels almost like a note-for-note remake of George Roy Hill's parodic Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, down to its inclusion of the girl who hitches her wagon (or, in this case, Mercedes-Benz) to two smirky outlaws. (Bandits also feels not a little like Howard Franklin and Bill Murray's Quick Change, a far quirkier bank-robbery movie.) Like both Butch Cassidy and Quick Change, Bandits never shuts up: The cast is forced to speak double-time, lest the movie's two-hour running time double in length. Peyton's talky script plays to Levinson's strengths; the director of Diner and Tin Men loves to listen in as grown men make small talk and pretend it's all so deep and meaningful.
The film is constructed in such a way that the bank holdups, which grow more brazen and silly once Joe and Terry become TV-created celebrities with catchy nicknames, are almost moot. After a while, they feel more like diversions than the destination, even though the entire film is told in flashback from the inside of a bank lobby. During these moments, Bandits plays like sitcom Steven Soderbergh: It literally begins at the end, as Terry and Joe await their fate during a bungled robbery of a Los Angeles bank, surrounded by cops. Before we've even become comfortable in our seats, TV true-crime reporter Darren Head (played by stand-up comic Bobby Slayton) informs us the two criminals died in a hail of gunfire. We're then left to witness their antics in retrospect as they boost banks up and down the Pacific Coast (the entire movie is so gorgeous it looks as though it were filmed from a postcard) and establish their infamy.
The movie suffers most when it attempts to mock a culture that would make stars out of good-guy bad guys; every time the movie builds up steam, Levinson stops to revel in the clever setup, jumping back and forth through the narrative. We can never tell what secrets are contained within a character's smile. Levinson uses the conceit only as empty gimmick; it serves no point, other than to cover a movie in an ill-fitting toupee it doesn't need.