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by Jay Seaver

"No great master plan here."
2 stars

One hears the plot of "Villains" and almost involuntarily makes a comment along the lines of how those kids have gotten themselves into some kind of pickle, and that's just about as far as the movie itself gets. It's got a good hook in its pair of endearingly dumb fugitives who stumble on genuinely dangerous people, but the right pieces aren't there for it to be more.

The dumb fugitives are Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe), two kids in their twenties who are looking to start new lives in Florida on money they've robbed from gas stations, but in an unfortunate bit of irony, they didn't fill up their car's tank before robbing the last one, and run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. They figure that maybe they can steal a new car from a nearby house, but it proves trickier than grabbing some cash from a convenience store, even before they find something unexpected in the basement and George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick) come back home.

There's a temptation to find parallels between Mickey & Jules and George & Gloria, but filmmakers Dan Berk & Robert Olsen don't exactly build it that way despite a few feints in that direction early. Not that a blessedly short comedic thriller exactly needs to have a lot of metaphor or resonance going on underneath the surface, but it should probably either reveal something when a viewer looks closer or have a more impressively tight game of cast and mouse. This movie often struggles at the basic "have people act murderous or not from scene to scene" level, and often seems like the filmmakers never cleared the things that made sense in the first draft out before the final. Jules's poking around the kitchen hints at an abandoned home, for example, but it doesn't make sense considering everything after that. Eventually things chaotically fall apart in a way that's not even exciting - and which also needs a lot more reaction time afterward - and the filmmakers don't seem to have what it takes to finally do something with the denial and delusion it's hinted at in the end.

The film could also do a lot more with a nice cast, although all four leads could do with being either a lot more out of control or more apparently grounded until something brings out their darker side. Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan never quite get to make their characters as dangerously eccentric as the costume choices foisted on them, and they don't seem quite in sync - Sedgwick's Gloria is almost tragically mad at times, but Donovan doesn't quite bring the matching mania that will make George do anything for her. Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monroe have nice chemistry in how their younger couple aren't all that complicated, but Monroe gets to have a moment that lays out what made Jules who she is (and which also affects the story) that is more or less denied Skarsgård, and Mickey seems more lightweight as a result. A moment or two of George scolding Mickey and Jules for their language doesn't make up for how much of their dialogue is boring variations of basic four-letter words.

That's not all bad; everybody involved is kind of good at lightweight, and when Berk & Olsen focus on dark comedy, they clearly show some skills. There's energy to the scenes where Mickey and Jules are doing dumb-but-lucky crime, for instance, or when Donovan plays George as just weird enough to remind the audience that while he's the smart one in this situation, that's highly relative. The outline of a neat shell game is there when a cop finally shows up, even if the most creative part of it is how cocaine eventually figures into it.

"Villains" may not be as exciting as it could be, which means it's not quite as funny as it's going for; you need the tension to be there in order to be caught flat-footed when things get weird. It's well-lubricated, though, going down a lot easier and quicker than a truly bad movie would.

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originally posted: 09/23/19 23:12:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

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