With a cheekily surrealist flair to match its zany, in-on-the-joke cast, Jonathan Sobol’s The Art of the Steal functions better as a comedy than as a thriller, though its laughs are less organized than its thrills. Sobol’s dialogue is often weighed down by cliché turns of phrase, but his actors’ comedic timing at times makes it endearing in its awkwardness; there’s a weird pleasure in listening to Kurt Russell, as the gruff and savvy ringleader of a team of art forgers, lose track of his own metaphors mid-ramble and sheepishly mumble himself silent. His character’s name, by the way, is Crunch Calhoun, and the absurdity of that moniker is indicative of the film’s overall spirit of irreverence. Calhoun’s co-conspirators are buffoonish and error-prone, quick to make fun of themselves and each other, which makes for a watchable group dynamic even when the script isn’t doing the actors many favors. Jay Baruchel, as Calhoun’s new-to-the-game assistant, takes his character’s incompetence to delirious heights in a very funny border-control sequence (three words: “Witness, the musical”), while Matt Dillon, as Calhoun’s aggressive younger brother, spits out lines like “Wear a suit, you look like a slutty elf” with giddy relish.
Ultimately, The Art of the Steal is an energetic but paper-thin genre exercise, filled with pleasant riffs on the standard heist flick, but ultimately lacking in payoff. At a brisk 90 minutes, it hardly overstays its welcome, but Sobol’s excessive reliance on flashback and montage yields convoluted and lazily obvious results. The twists and turns aren’t particularly revelatory, and they don’t need to be for the film to still work, but Sobol spends more time explaining his elaborate setups to the viewer than he does articulating the world in which his oddball characters reside. Flimsy characterizations abound: Jason Jones’s Agent Bick, the story’s de facto antagonist, merely shouts, throws things, whines about the partner he’s been tasked to work with, then shouts again, while Terence Stamp is wasted in a role consisting almost exclusively of nasty one-liners. More risible is the film’s obvious disinterest in its only semi-significant female character, Lola (Katheryn Winnick), who’s perpetually framed in near-silence behind the male characters. Given that the cast wonderfully plays up the comic and absurd elements of the screenplay, their crackling energy makes clear that a little less plot and a little more characterization would’ve gone a long way to making The Art of the Steal a truly exciting contribution to the canon of heist films.