Taking the Art Out of ‘The Art of the Steal’

[5 June 2014]

By Brice Ezell

“Beginnings and endings are always the most difficult thing in a screenplay. The middle section is just the noise in between the bookends for the most part.”
—Jonathan Sobol

“I really like this heist shit.”
—Francie (Jay Baruchel)

Note: Spoilers ahead.

The Art of the Steal doesn’t have a whole lot of work to do. For writer/director Jonathan Sobol to give this title to his comedic heist/con artist flick is a bit gutsy; in cinema’s not-so-long history, audiences worldwide have been provided with top-tier examinations of the “steal.” From nouvelle vague pioneers like Jean-Pierre Melville (Le deuxième souffle) to art film pioneers dabbling in the mainstream (Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy), a great deal of celluloid has been devoted to detailing all that goes into a great confidence trick or elaborate heist.

What new information, then, could The Art of the Steal offer fans of those genres? The answer: not much.

A substantial amount of the film’s comedic momentum comes from Sobol’s attempt to play with the tropes of the heist/con artist genre, which has a success rate of about 50/50. At the beginning of the film, following a botched art theft in Poland, Crunch Calhoun (Kurt Russell), intones that there really is no such thing as “one last job”—but then in the next breath notes that if there were such a thing, the failed theft in Poland came close.

After getting out of prison, Crunch “retires” from the thieving business, taking up a career as a stunt cyclist who gets paid to take spectacular dives. The job—no surprise—leaves him unhappy. When he unwittingly ends up working with his old crew, the echoes of his “one last job” comment are not far off. Even when The Art of the Steal devolves into cliché, which it often does, one can at least credit Sobol and his gifted cast for acknowledging and playing with the tropes of the genre rather than avoiding them.

While Crunch’s quip about “one last job” lands successfully, his meta-commentary on other features of the heist/con artist genre flop. While arguing with his brother Nicky (Matt Dillon, playing the sketchy character he always gravitates to), who is responsible for his time in prison, Crunch goes on a small rant about there needing to be honor among thieves, clearly forgetting that classic saying has the word “no” in front of it. Crunch’s rant ends as he stumbles through his sentences awkwardly.

This appears to be Russell giving a horrible line reading, but when he finally concludes at the end of his rant that honor among thieves is useful if false “bullshit”, it’s clear that Sobol intended this as a self-reflexive depiction of the crook’s inability to justify his moral code in the face of the illegality his career necessarily involves. However, the clunkiness of this scene plays out such that it doesn’t look like Crunch is struggling with his lines, but rather Sobol’s script is.

Nevertheless, in spite of the hit-and-miss quality of Sobol’s attempts to satirize the heist genre, The Art of the Steal rises above what is largely a run-of-the-mill script, due in part to the clever structure of the script and the superb cast, who brings a lot of life out of what otherwise would have been rote material. Joining Crunch and Nicky’s crime ring are art forger Guy de Cornet (Chris Diamantopoulos), comedic relief Francie (Jay Baruchel), human Rolodex Paddy McCarthy (Kenneth Welsh), and Crunch’s girlfriend Lola (Katheryn Winnick). (Sadly, as is too often the case with heist films, The Art of the Steal is largely a boy’s club.) On the other side of the law is the dynamic comedic duo of INTERPOL’s Agent Bick (Jason Jones of The Daily Show fame) and ex-thief-turned-consultant Samuel Winter (Terrence Stamp); the former’s fluctuating temper is met wonderfully by the latter’s dry wit.

Bick and Winter’s task is to stop Crunch’s gang from stealing a painting housed at a border crossing between Canada and New York. This is the “one last job” that pulls Crunch out of his stunt cyclist gig, teaming up with the very person who had him sent to prison. The tension between him and Nicky becomes the driving force of the movie’s plot. Sobol hones in on this conflict, framing The Art of the Steal as a battle between Crunch and Nicky for the sizeable loot.

The true feat of this otherwise breezy picture (at 90 minutes, Sobol doesn’t waste anyone’s time) is that it upends its own structure. In the end, the battle between Crunch and Nicky remains the focal point, but not in the way it plays out for the bulk of the movie. Because Crunch didn’t trust Nicky from the outset, he and the rest of the crew—who share his animosity for Nicky following the Poland heist—feed Nicky false information throughout the entirety of the heist, making him believe they are all playing along while they con him. This tactic is clever, and its success is explained by one brilliant reason: it’s much easier to con someone when he thinks he has already won. With no reason to think to check his guard, Nicky goes along with the theft, not realizing he’s playing advanced checkers and not the chess that his teammates are playing.

Like Nicky, the viewer is led to believe one thing about The Art of the Steal and is in the end given something else. The film seems to be about the art heist that has played out by the film’s halfway point; by its conclusion, however, the heist ends up being a red herring. This metacinematic sleight of hand, though deftly handled by Sobol and his cast, has been done before.

In the underrated second installment of the Ocean’s trilogy, Ocean’s Twelve, the heist that almost takes up the entire two hours of the film ends up being a complete charade, intended to distract the enemy of the Ocean’s crew into thinking he has won—and, in the process, fooling the audience as well. “You’ll have to put on an elaborate show,” master thief Gaspar LeMarc (Albert Finney) tells Daniel Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) near the end of Ocean’s Twelve. That particular film of Soderbergh’s is, indeed, an elaborate show. Sobol’s, on the other hand, while accessible and charming, is not so elaborate.

Rather than building layers that lead up to the ultimate revelation, The Art of the Steal puts all of its chips down on the twist. Once the scheme has been revealed, all has been explained away; there’s no reason to dive back into the film, and attempt to sift through the complex events that led up to the twist. The hat trick of Sobol’s script is a fine one on its own terms, but beyond the brief magic of the reveal there’s not much left.

The cast of The Art of the Steal gives the story enough substance to make one interested enough in the reveal in the first place; major props to Stephanie Gorin and Nancy Klopper for their fine work as casting directors. The Art of the Steal, however, feels less like a work of art and more like an entertaining case study of how one might pull a particular trick. It hooks you for its runtime, but it never sinks its teeth in.

The DVD bonus features are not especially substantial, but credit is due to the cast and crew for having the “making of” featurette go beyond the self-congratulatory; everyone cracks jokes about each other, particularly Jones, who has some great barbs about Stamp. Best of all, no one takes themselves too seriously; even though the characters of The Art of the Steal relish in successfully conning Nicky, their execution is comprised mostly of wisecracks and belly laughs, rather than with the stone-facedness that comes with revenge.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/182443-taking-the-art-out-of-the-art-of-the-steal/