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Review: ‘American Animal,’ a library heist goes wrong

For anyone who has ever read “Crime and Punishment” and then really wanted to see a frat boy version — Bro-stoyevsky, if your movie has finally arrived.

“American Animals” is about a foursome of Kentucky students, all white kids from privileged backgrounds — who in 2004 decided to steal some very valuable books out of the Lexington library in Transylvania University. They are less driven by the millions of books (in particular John James Audubon’s multi-volume “The Birds of America”), than by a desire to step further than a line and turn their ordinary life into something “special.”

“We need hunters and collectors, the man,” the one says to the other in a supermarket aisle.

The irony is that their brutal plot turns them into a different kind of cliché — unfortunate, dimwitted criminals and let them end up with nothing other than regret and shame. Oh, and this movie.

Bart Layton’s “American Animals” is not only a dramatization of the 2004 heist. It is often told and discussed by the real guys whose story the film is based on. Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Bosuk and Charles Allen II all appear in documentary-style interviews that punctuate the heist story, looking back years later, with ashen remorse that may or may not mask their joy at starring in their own movie.

It opens, cleverly, with the words “This is not based on a true story.” Then, with a puff, the middle words are blown away to leave, “This is a true story.” Layton has previously played with hybrids of fiction and non-fiction. His 2012 documentary “The Imposter,” about the shape-shifting con-man Frédéric Bourdin, was as manipulative and deceptive as a sly topic.

And especially in the first half of the “American Animals,” Layton is working hard, too hard to make an impression on its own stranger than fiction playfulness. The talking-head testimonies from the boys, together with their parents and teachers, together with scenes in which the characters question each other’s memories. Layton sometimes plays multiple versions of scenes, such as the foggily remember meeting with a possible fence to the sale of the books in New York.

The what-where-what-is-no tricks, reminiscent of last year, “I, Tonya,” are, as is the students’ own high-minded plans — not as smart as Layton seems to think. But the actors are very good. Barry Keoghan (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) plays Spencer, a talented painter looking for a number of artistic suffering. “Art should be about something more than: My life is great and I am really good signs,” he says.

The valuable books are eye catching, but it is his friend Warren (Evan Peters) who is the leader. While his parents divorce, Warren let his athletic scholarship slipping, and refashions himself as a James Dean in rebel and tiny thief. By charisma and cajoling, he gathers a team (Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner play Bosuk and All) and what begins as a hypothetical lark turns into a real, if poorly considered plot, which is based on the disabling of the middle-aged librarian (Ann Dowd) and dressing up as elderly men in costumes who mainly seem on the 1970 Dick Van Dykes.

They make a study of the heist films, the viewing of films such as Stanley Kubrick’s ” The Killing,” giving of themselves “Reservoir Dogs” nicknames and imagining a smooth, stylish “Ocean’s 11” operation. In a sense, “American Animals” reward them with the fame they sought. And it is reasonable to wonder whether the film — which blends their crime with the existential malaise of the American youth — it is not just another way for them to profit for what they deserve just punishment. (Allen also wrote in 2010 a book with the title “Mr. Pink.” Reinhard is still painting.)

There is enough hollow in the self-conscious machinations of the “American Animals.” But there is also something of an influence on Reinhard’s regrets, and how the movie charts the swift, crushing fall of a goofy, quixotic idea hatched by the kids who don’t realize that what they play is not a game. “American Animals” would be a legitimate cautionary tale if it is not disproved by his own existence.

“American Animals”, an Orchard and MoviePass Ventures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language, some drug use and brief crude/sexual material.” Running time: 116 minutes. Two stars out of four.

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MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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