This slick, smart heist film tells the real-life story of four privileged college kids who robbed a rare books collection. Rating: 4 stars out of 4.

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Movie review

What do you get the jaded college kid who has it all? How about a backpack full of priceless stolen books from the Transylvania University library!

OK, that probably won’t be at the top of your list, but 14 years ago, four privileged college kids actually robbed the rare books collection at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. “American Animals” tells their story in a genre-twisting style that stays exciting and inventive while capturing the disillusionment of their restless generation.

Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) and Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) concocted their audacious plan on a lark. Bored with the usual Saturday-night routine of getting drunk and making fun of local hillbillies, these upwardly mobile lads rented a bunch of heist movies and devised the perfect plan to swipe the rare “Birds of America” Audubon collection. The novice criminals conduct exhaustive surveillance, draw up intricate blueprints, and recruit accomplices Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson) to complete their crew. Suddenly, their charmed-but-vacant lives have a renewed purpose.

Writer-director Bart Layton’s story functions perfectly well as a standard heist movie. The players are assembled, a plan is set into motion and the heist unfolds with predictably chaotic results. The propulsive pacing builds a genuine sense of tension, but, similar to Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” the tone remains breezy and light. Layton recognizes how ridiculous these guys are — their cheesy robbery disguises look straight from the costume closet of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video — but he wants to understand why they felt compelled to ruin their promising young lives.

Layton, an accomplished documentarian, knows that when you want answers, you go straight to the source. To that end, the released robbers (each served a seven-year prison term) are interviewed for “American Animals,” with the resulting segments woven into its dramatic narrative. Lipka even shares the screen with his fictional counterpart (Keoghan) on one occasion. Similar to the real-life Harvey Pekar interacting with his cartoon likeness in 2003’s brilliant “American Splendor,” these interviews add much needed depth to a story with a known outcome.

They also add subtext. While each character admits what they did was wrong, genuine regret is in short supply. These suburban sleepwalkers, unsatisfied by their comfortable lives and digital toys, awaken from their malaise by taking a walk on the wild side. The crime is regrettable, but the underlying emptiness of the criminals feels much more insidious.

Heavy subtext aside, “American Animals” remains a slick, smart heist film that entertains from start to finish. It also highlights the first rule of larceny: Before stealing something, make sure that you’re actually strong enough to carry it.
★★★★ “American Animals,” with Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd. Written and directed by Bart Layton. 116 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and brief crude/sexual material. Opens June 8 at Pacific Place, Lincoln Square.