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Review: Neither dark or comic enough, ‘How to Deter a Robber’ goes down too easily

A young woman sits in a car with a snowy backdrop in the movie “How to Deter a Robber.”
Vanessa Marano in the movie “How to Deter a Robber.”
(Shout! Studios )

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

Writer-director Maria Bissell’s debut feature “How to Deter a Robber” is a mildly likable dark comedy that never finds a steady groove. It’s neither dark enough nor comic enough; and it never really settles on whether it wants to be a breezy spoof of home-invasion thrillers or an earnest story about teenagers realizing they need to grow up in a hurry.

The veteran TV actress Vanessa Marano (still in her 20s but already a familiar face from long stints on “Gilmore Girls” and “Switched at Birth”) plays Madison, a college-bound high-schooler spending a holiday weekend in a snowy small-town Wisconsin house with her family and her dopey long-time boyfriend Jimmy (Benjamin Papac). One night while playing drinking games and watching bad movies with Jimmy and her cool Uncle Andy (Chris Mulkey), Madison is startled by two bumbling young burglars, Patrick (Sonny Valicenti) and Christine (Abbie Cobb).

It takes a long time — too long, really — for the plot of “How to Deter a Robber” to kick in. There’s an unnecessary digression about how the hopelessly slack and self-indulgent Madison and Jimmy get mistaken for the burglars by the local cops; and there are some under-developed threads about how the chronically la-di-da Madison has never reckoned with the tragedies in her past or her dysfunctional family.

The movie starts clicking once Patrick and Christine barge in, as the crafty Andy tries to concoct ways to outwit the invaders and the crooks make a series of endearingly awkward mistakes.

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Cobb is the stealthy MVP of this picture, playing a goodhearted kid who wants to support her more sinister partner but doesn’t want anyone to get hurt.

But this is ultimately Madison’s tale, and while Marano is a talented and engaging actor, Bissell never comes up with enough of a reason why Madison’s fairly mundane circumstances — as a relatively privileged youngster who’s stubbornly immature — make her a worthy heroine. The film’s tone, on the whole, is too glib to give its main character the depth she needs.

“How to Deter a Robber” features polished performances and some fairly snappy dialogue, but aside from a few sharp moments, it lacks sting. It’s easy to watch … but too easy.

'How to Deter a Robber'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Playing: Starts July 16, Laemmle Glendale; also on VOD


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