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Bill Me Later: Max Solomon (Spencer Berger) reads the fine print in 'Skills Like These.'

Raised on Robbery

'Skills Like This' offers up an ad man's vision.

By Richard von Busack

Director Monty Miranda debuts with the slick but somehow likable Skills Like This. He's an advertising man, and that line of work is reflected in this Denver-based movie, which has the hit-and-run (and hit-and-miss) quality of the 30-second spot. Miranda has a new area to open up to the camera, a small hipster ghetto surrounded by blight, where there is apparently one restaurant, one bar and one aluminum-walled condo carved out of an ex-factory. Of course, some ad men are geniuses of a kind. Various moments of this caper film--a 2009 mope's answer to Breathless--are the funniest thing to come of Colorado since South Park.

The holy Three Stooges paradigm is honored here: Max (Spencer Berger, who wrote the story and screenplay ) is the Larry caught between his wrathful Moe-like buddy Tommy (Brian D. Phelan) and the Curly-like oddity of the worn-down salaryman Dave (Gabriel Tigerman). Max has just watched his baby die in front of a small audience. The opening little-theater parody is exactly what I meant by the kind of hilarious 30-second spot Miranda has helmed. "The Onion Dance" is Max's horrendous play--life-affirming gibberish with live farm animals onstage and Our Town-style address to the audience. It's so terrible it apparently knocks Max's grandfather into an ambulance.

Stung by the failure, Max decides to start a new career--as a bank robber. He becomes the "Suicide Bandit;" he holds up banks by holding a gun to his head and threatening to pull the trigger. Max launches a minor crime wave through downtown Denver. Dave is moved to man-up by this display of bravado, and he confronts his soul-grinding job and gets a tattoo. Tommy's already large-scale buttholism grows in the presence of a real criminal. But conscience and a family crisis take some of the pleasure out of Max's rampage.

Underneath the amoral slickness, you can guesstimate what's going on. Every successful advertising person gets pestered about when they're going to liberate that novel they've got trapped inside of them. Maybe that's what's really going on in a bar scene where Max insists that his writing days are over: he's a failure as a writer but a natural at robbery. (Probably every advertising copywriter this side of Stan Freberg has said something like this at one time or another.) At the bar, Max runs into Lucy (Kerry Knuppe--a beguiling counterpoint to all the guy energy here). Lucy is the teller Max robbed; and as they launch into an affair, she tries to bring back a sense of perspective to him, insisting that thievery isn't just one of the lively arts.

Miranda takes the movie into a risk zone. At one point Tommy breaks the taboo against child-molestation jokes; it's the frontier that all take-no-prisoners humor wants to cross. Miranda sets up the "hot fourth grade girl" joke with some nostalgia--Tommy and Dave's otherwise pointless wander through their old elementary school. It's actually Marta Martin's La Stereotypca Mexican restaurant waitress bit that seems a little more creepy: she's full of bosomy compassion to these three mooks, and the only other Mexican-American character in the film is a mute gangbanger. The movie about inner city life is made with that kind of heedless privilege that the director doesn't notice any more than a fish notices water.

Berger's soulful, early Nick Cage vibe helps the movie; he's an amiable crazyman. Tommy's macho idiocy can be enjoyed in little doses. I liked his speech, a variation of the Prater Park scene in The Third Man, below a rickety Denver Ferris wheel. I also liked his phrasing of the words "We attended university together," making community college sound like Princeton. Extras on the DVD ought to include the blowhard's résumé: "Chad's Tricked Out Bicycles: Duties: Spoke Tightener. Tightened spokes. Loosened spokes. Retightened spokes that became loose." The movie has its share of loose spokes. It goes everywhere and nowhere, so it's hard to tell if Miranda will go up or just no place.

Movie Times SKILLS LIKE THIS (88 min.), directed by Monty Miranda, written by Spencer Berger and starring Spencer Berger, Gabriel Tigerman and Brian Phelan, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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