Billy Bob Thornton doesn’t ride a bicycle accompanied by the la-di-da lilt of ”Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Bruce Willis expresses no opinions about swimming. Cate Blanchett dresses more like Erin Brockovich than like a schoolmarm. These are just three of the ways in which Bandits is not ”Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
But the biggest difference — what distinguishes this slack, low-stakes comedy about bank robbers and their shared gal from its famous 32-year-old predecessor — is the self-consciousness of the zaniness.
Joe (Willis) and Terry (Thornton), a legendary pair of wanted hombres, are called ”The Sleepover Bandits” because of their media-friendly habit of inviting themselves as houseguests into the home of any bank manager whose institution they intend to rob the following day. Joe’s a charming man of action. Terry’s a hypochondriacal man of words and thoughts. Joe impulsively steals vehicles as needed. Terry methodically flosses. The pair meet Kate (Blanchett), a bored housewife with a dud husband, when she nearly runs Terry over while running away from the tedium of her rich, dead-end domestic life, then gets dragged along on one of their stickups (much to the annoyance of their dim but trusty getaway driver, played by Jane Fonda’s son, Troy Garity). And the lady comes to love the excitement. She loves the guys, too, although she can’t choose between them. ”Kate is an iceberg waiting for the ‘Titanic,”’ one bandit says to the other — one of the few things the odd couple agree on.
The movie stars, on the other hand, encouraged by Barry Levinson’s what-the-heck slaphappy direction, do agree that it’s their right to mess around and mug like improv artistes. It’s impossible to know where screenwriter Harley Peyton’s blabbedy script ends and the boys’ shtick begins. But it’s there, that smart-alecky, watch-me-now stuff, crowding the screen with every new wig-and-haberdashery disguise the duo models. (Particularly déjà vu: Willis in a bebop porkpie hat and jazzbo shades, Thornton in a ”Sling Blade”-jerk blond pageboy wig.) While they banter playfully — aiming for Butch and Sundance chemistry, or maybe the Ür-bickering of ”The Odd Couple”’s Oscar and Felix — these two happy chappies in snappy serapes nearly crow: Ain’t we cute!
As for Blanchett, that wonderful Australian actress of usually perfect pitch (in a perfect American accent, as needed), she’s costumed and lipsticked to a cartoon-luscious gloss. At one point she wears a blond wig of a brassiness only Jean Harlow had a right to display; at other times she favors the improbably vivid wardrobe of a housewife with too much Bob Mackie on her mind. But this missus is in fact a rare Blanchett misstep. Yes, indeed, the character is first seen singing at home while holding an appliance as a microphone. Yep, later she sings to her fellas with the humiliating wobbliness of Cameron Diaz in ”My Best Friend’s Wedding.”
These are stolen, recycled gestures. And these are fenced laughs, in a comedy that might have made Butch and Sundance jump off a cliff.