I typically try to avoid doing multi-film posts, but given that I've just seen two movies that I liked for almost exactly the same reasons, it seemed like it might be okay just this once. Both are entirely unimaginative but extremely well-built, and immensely entertaining not because of their innovation, but because of how solidly crafted they are on the way to clichéd inevitability. Having said that, one of the films works mostly because of its strong editing and narrative structure, while the other is almost solely reliant upon its terrifically likable actors, which would tend to undercut my statement that they're "exactly the same." I do not deny this. Indeed, it is central to my point.

* * *

"Based on a true story" is such a marvelous bit of hand-waving. In the case of The Bank Job it means, "we are going to try and gloss over some of the more unbelievable elements of our story by making you think it's all factual." They needn't have bothered; true or fake, The Bank Job is a brisk entertainment that doesn't need believability to work.

The true story, at any rate, is pretty thin gruel: in 1971, a ham radio operator overheard a bank robbery in progress, and reported it to the police. After a few days, a D-notice - a government edict gagging the media - was put on the story, and it slipped into the mists of time. From that tottering skeleton, screenwriters Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais (formerly of Tracey Ullman's coterie, among many other shared credits) and director Roger Donaldson (a New Zealander whose career has included much solid work, but all I want to do is harp on his 1997 disaster Dante's Peak) have fashioned a fairly preposterous but breezy and delightful conspiracy tale of a safe deposit box with pornographic photos of a Royal Personage, a black militant whose politics are a smokescreen for his drug and prostitution rings, and a cadre of schlubby blokes who misadventure their way into one of the biggest bank heists in history.

Giving away any more than that would spoil things, and isn't the best part about a heist movie watching how plans are made and then unravel? The Bank Job admittedly isn't one of history's great heist movies, but it gets the job done well enough. And it's a credit to everyone involved that once the actual robbery is completed and the film moves on to the aftermath of the crime (one of two models for the caper film - the other is to end at the successful completion of the caper), a point at which most films start to run out of gas and thrash around a bit, The Bank Job in fact starts to pick up. While the opening is fun and playful, the second half is in many places quite the intense thriller: the danger in the caper is all back-loaded, and the filmmakers pull no punches in convincing us of just how dangerous it is.

There's an unexpected seriousness that makes the film more memorable than most of the seemingly endless run of British crime pictures to come out in the wake of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Death, in this film - and there is death, some of it quite unexpected - has a bite that's usually missing from films of this type, due in no small part to how very vicious death can be here. It's part of the film's program of smuggling a bitter pill in underneath the stylish generic facade, not only making subtle but unmistakable jabs at the "whee, violence!" mentality typical of crime pictures, but also foregrounding with equal subtlety the economic world of Britain in the 1970s, the world of joblessness and recession that would eventually end in punk and Thatcher.

This isn't really the kind of film that requires a crackerjack cast, which is good, because star Jason Statham isn't all that much of an actor. I love him, for reasons that continuously evade me, but he's never been called on to do much except glower and be British. To be sure, The Bank Job is not a film like any other in his career - it's much grittier and less action-packed than almost anything he's done - and for the first time it's possible to see some glistening humanity in the back of his eyes that does more than Acting could. The rest of the cast is just there to fill in the blanks and have fun, really: Saffron Burrows is reliably easy on the eyes, where the (to Americans) mostly unknown Steven Campbell Moore and Daniel Mays et al get to play at being various modes of tough guys.

Rather, this is the kind of film that requires a crackerjack team behind the camera, and thankfully it has just that: editor John Gilbert in particular ought to have some sort of medal for the work he's turned in on this project, cutting between points-of-view and sometimes even time periods with an easy elegance that keeps the whole thing lively (and there's really nothing more important for a caper film than to seem lively). Michael Coulter, the cinematographer of pretty much any British romantic comedy you could name from the last 15 years, brings in a nicely '70s-esque brown flatness to the film. It's no Zodiac, but it looks like the era ought to.

But it seems wrong not to cut to the chase and put the credit where it belongs: Roger Donaldson, who has made good films and bad films, but who is through and through and entirely solid craftsman. The Bank Job doesn't break any new ground, but in its comforting familiarity, it's extremely well-built. The ending may be a bit too happily-ever-after, the concept a bit too flighty, but it's all in the name of good fun, and for all it's toughness, the film is nothing if not a top-notch entertainment.

8/10

* * *

It's a bit of a pity that Frances McDormand's first performance in two years (and the first time she appears to be enjoying herself in much longer) is doomed to be lost in the shadow of Amy Adams's attempt to prove she's not a one-hit wonder. This is after all a perilous moment for Adams: now that Enchanted made her famous, she needs something to prove that she can be a star.

The first attempt (not that it could have been planned that way) is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a self-conscious throwback to the farces of the 1930s, in which McDormand plays Miss Pettigrew, a prim British governess who finds herself unemployed and scraping for food on the streets when she finds an opportunity to serve as the social secretary for an inordinately flighty, over-sexed American "actress," Delysia Lafosse, played by Adams as a bubbly conniver.

Broadly speaking, the film works more than it doesn't. Much of the time, the line between those two points is so fine that you can hear the straining noises, and it's a little obvious that director Bharat Nalluri hasn't really worked in farce before. Some scenes - Miss Pettigrew and Delysia's first meeting, for one - are fleet and mostly effective (with the occasional drift into unwarranted mania), while some just kind of poke around, looking for jokes that don't always come. The dead giveaway is the performers, particularly the menfolk. Not a single male in the film seems to have any real grasp on what he's doing there, although the unnaturally reliable Ciarán Hinds, who has the least comedy to grapple with, does the best job of making his particular batch of contrivances work. Performances that wander this much in search of their note are invariably a sign that something isn't going right up top.

But as I said, it works more often than not, and I'm standing by that judgment. Mostly because, when all is said and done, it does exactly what it needed to for Adams: it proves she can be a star. It fails entirely to prove that she has much range - and I'm not arguing that she doesn't, only that this isn't the film to silence the naysayers. Stardom isn't about being a great performer, necessarily. Adams is on track to become a great star in the old-fashioned, studio system way: she has a strong, appealing persona that can be molded to fit the needs of a given story or character. Her cuteness and bubbliness (two words that are alarmingly over-used to describe the actress, I'll admit) are given a sort of blunt edge by Delysia's frank sexuality in this movie, but it's still her cuteness and her bubbliness, and while I am sympathetic to those who find her annoying, I can't find much common ground with them. Frankly, I wish we had more actors like Amy Adams, who find one mode and run it into the ground; the last time the movies were like that was in the 1930s, and movies were a hell of a lot better then than they are now.

Back to the matter at hand: the artlessness of Adams's work in Miss Pettigrew &c is part of what makes the film function, because like the film, it is self-evidently fake. I contend that good farce, more than any genre of anything, is rooted in a cheerful embrace of its own synthetic nature. We're watching something artificial, dammit, and that's what makes it fun to watch as the clockwork of the plot ticks away. It's not a very comfortable place for modern audiences to be, with their fixation on realism, and given that it by necessity must be anchored on a synthetic character performed in a synthetic way, it's even less comfortable for our solidly post-Method cinema. But Adams goes for it, much more than her director does, and she makes the film a lot brighter than it would else have been.

As I started with McDormand, so shall I end with her. Though she has the titular role, it seems less important than Adams's, and more indifferently written. This is a problem for the film, which pivots around an ill-defined center. But McDormand has what Adams does not, gravitas, and she lets just enough of it into her performance that it gives the film enough weight to keep from blowing away. This too is a component of farce. And McDormand's readings of a few choice lines - one in particular about society's short memory of war - are lovely enough to make a fairly rote character much more human than the role deserves.

The overriding characteristic of the film is not its unmitigated success, but how very much it flirts with success. More than anything, I love that Miss Pettigrew tries to be a vintage comedy rather than a modern version of a vintage comedy, the smutty innuendo notwithstanding. It's a bold choice that founders a bit on the director's weakness with the material, but it still looks like something we virtually never see in the English speaking world. It knows what it wants to be, and just about almost makes it there. That might keep it from being a masterpiece, but it's enough for it to be a pleasant way to spend some time.

7/10