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‘American Animals’ not your average heist flick

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From left, Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters are excellent in “American Animals.” (Courtesy The Orchard)

While its combination of documentary and dramedy yields uneven results, “American Animals” — based on a headline-making botched crime — is an entertaining heist story with novelty appeal, a psychological element and an energetic indie vibe.

Director Bart Layton, whose credits include the captivating documentary “The Imposter,” makes his dramatic-feature debut with this lively, busy romp screening at the Kabuki and the Embarcadero in The City. It depicts the real-life attempted robbery of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” from a Lexington, Ky., university, in 2004, by four comfortably bred college students.

Spencer (Barry Keoghan), a brooding freshman, wants to be an artist but believes he must suffer first. Warren (Evan Peters), his hot-blooded buddy, is an athletic-scholarship kid who thinks the special life he’s been promised is pointless.

During a campus library tour, Spencer learns that the rare-books room contains the above-mentioned Audubon tome. He and Warren later discuss stealing the treasure, and Warren wildly embraces the idea. Insisting that performing this feat would bring excitement and meaning to their lives, he convinces Spencer to go along.

Detail-minded Eric (Jared Abrahamson) and fitness-obsessed Chas (Blake Jenner) come aboard, and the four get cracking. They plot their moves and arrange to fence the goods, never mind that they don’t know what “fence” means. They address the unsavory matter of Tasering the librarian (Ann Dowd) guarding the book.

Some of the guys have second thoughts, but the thrill element keeps them hooked.

Watching heist movies like “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Reservoir Dogs” adds to the kick.

The job, of course, goes disastrously.

Layton frequently inserts documentary material — recently filmed talking-heads commentary by the real-life Spencer, Warren, Eric and Chas — into the picture. They recall their 2004 selves as bored, entitled kids confusing movie crime with true life.

These hindsight scenes do little to explain why the young men behaved so stupidly and also break the momentum of the caper action, reducing audience interest — unlike the way similar scenes in Craig Gillespie’s “I Tonya” illuminate the ineptly executed crime involving skater Tonya Harding and her husband Jeff Gillooly. Remaining factual, that movie’s seamless multiple perspectives made viewers feel for the characters, despite their immense flaws.

Yet some of the documentary scenes in “American Animals” interestingly illustrate the unreliability of memory, and how varied people’s perceptions of the same thing can be, and Layton has fun with the concept. At one point, a scarf described as blue by one of the men and purple by another changes colors onscreen.

Such material makes this no typical heist picture.

As for the genre fiction, Layton delivers the essentials, often with verve, creating engrossing, brisk and visceral action, and displaying a flair for chaos and panic.

Crucially, there’s humanity in this picture of four young men self-destructing, and the cast sizzles. Peters, whose barely hinged Warren energizes the story, and Keoghan, as the increasingly jittery and conscience-plagued Spencer, stand out.

American Animals
Three stars
Starring: Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, Blake Jenner
Written and directed by: Bart Layton
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

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