The Art of the Steal boasts one of those interchangeable and instantly forgettable titles, though in its mind it’s a clever double entendre, since writer-director Jonathan Sobol’s con movie centers around the theft of paintings, sculpture and a Gutenberg-printed fifth holy gospel. See … art! How one feels about that wink and nudge, as well as their personal threshold for colorful characters over engaging plotting, will likely dictate the level of enjoyment they obtain from this derivative but hard-working crime comedy.
Rakish wheelman Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell) is the de facto leader of one of those groups of high-end honorable thieves—a collection that includes his half-brother Nicky (Matt Dillon), French forgery specialist Guy (Chris Diamantopolous) and obligatory old coot Paddy (Kenneth Welsh). When one of their schemes involving a pointillist masterpiece goes sideways and Nicky gets nabbed, he rolls on Crunch in order to avoid a hefty prison term.
Much later, after getting out of a five-plus-year stint in a Polish prison, Crunch has returned stateside and taken to taking motorcycle dives in a traveling circus, where he works alongside girlfriend Lola (Katheryn Winnick) and mentee Francie (Jay Baruchel). When an aggrieved party comes looking for Nicky to settle a score, Crunch reluctantly assents to putting his old crew back together and working to smuggle a rare book across the Canadian border to a buyer, all while a perpetually exasperated Interpol agent (Jason Jones) and a surly ex-con (Terrence Stamp) roped into working with him in order to secure a parole, try to unravel the case.
Sobol doesn’t go full Guy Ritchie, but early on there are nicknames and textual overlays that introduce Nicky as “the Idea Man,” Paddy as “the Rolodex,” and so on. Once the movie hits its stride, the split screens subside a bit, but The Art of the Steal exercises a light stylishness throughout, never betraying its essential moviedom. Cinematographer Adam Swica and production designer Matthew Davies embrace ironic splashes of color in monochromatic settings, and make nice contrast of open and contained spaces. Meanwhile, it’s also clear that composer Grayson Matthews studied the Ocean’s Eleven score.
The thing that most recommends The Art of the Steal is the manner in which it basically owns the fact that it’s, ahem, totally familiar. In a wry opening voiceover, Crunch rejects the notion of One Last Big Score, and then the movie, through myriad double-crosses and head feints, basically takes viewers there anyway. (There’s also an amusing, rambling monologue about the code of thieves that Crunch admits may be “horseshit,” but it’s horseshit that he bought into. Nicky, however, trampled all over it, so now he has horseshit all over his shitty boots.) Sobol wisely keeps seriousness at bay, infusing his effort with a springy energy.
If the plot specifics, which involve counterfeiting and other fake-outs, are basically a huge yawn, there’s some genuine lift and laughs to be found in a few of the absurd scenarios Sobol contrives: after being forced into impersonating an Amish guy at a border stop, a nervous Francie, when it’s noted his bushy fake beard is coming off, spins a yarn about being an actor in the Broadway musical Witness!.
Nicely, the movie’s characters mostly seem to speak in separate, identifiable voices that realistically align with their life experiences, and the actors basically eat this all up. Welsh deploys an entertainingly thick Irish brogue. The Daily Show’s Jones sputters and rants, in amusing counterpoint to a sour Stamp. Dillon is a weaselly bastard and Russell, laying on the rumpled everyman charm, comes across as almost an incidental crook, like some third cousin of Jeff Bridges’ Dude from The Big Lebowski.
It’s all artifice, sure. But if one pushes through the fog of the story proper, The Art of the Steal has just enough going on to keep genre enthusiasts interested and even amused.
Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy, Magill’s Cinema Annual and ShockYa, among many other outlets. A former three-term president and current member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Simon has contributed to a wide variety of publications, including New York Magazine’sVulture, IGN, Rotten Tomatoes, H Magazine, FilmStew and Reelz. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.
Director: Jonathan Sobol
Writer: Jonathan Sobol
Starring: Kurt Russell, Jay Baruchel, Matt Dillon, Chris Diamantopolous, Kenneth Welsh, Jason Jones, Katheryn Winnick, Terrence Stamp
Release Date: Mar. 14