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Arts and Entertainment

LAist Movie Review: The Art of the Steal

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Photo courtesy IFC Films.

Capers. Heists. Bank jobs. There’s no shortage of ways to communicate such a specific type of premeditated robbery of high-value items, and certainly no limit to the true tales that surround such terms. There are fantastic stories of burrowing, bribing, and even plain old brute force from France to Russia to Puerto Rico and back around. And what makes these stories so wonderful to hear is simple: they’re fun, fantastical, and adrenaline-inducing. While the new Don Argott documentary The Art of the Steal certainly has moments that resemble the best of what other heists have to offer, the film ultimately moves away from ‘whodunit?’ and into ‘who cares?’

Now, that’s not to say The Art of the Steal isn’t interesting; it is. The problem is, outside of the predominantly rich white echelon of the high art community, there aren’t many folks who move from ‘interested’ to ‘outraged’. The primary issue surrounds the Barnes Foundation, an impeccable collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern works by some of the biggest names in recent art history. Works by Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne and many others are part of the Barnes, as snapped up smartly by A.C. Barnes himself after he made a fortune in the pharmaceuticals industry in the early 20th century. With a keen eye for art and a great displeasure for the snobbery that surrounds it, Barnes took to keeping the public eye off of his masterpieces, providing only rare glimpses to anyone not enrolled in his art school classes. His ire particularly focused on the old-money aristocracy of Philadelphia, who initially shunned the works as garish, only to beg for their display in a more public-friendly venue: downtown Philadelphia. Instead, Barnes built a warm estate a mere five miles away in a residential neighborhood to house the art, and stipulated that they never be moved, loaned, sold, or displayed in any other way than how he had arranged the works. But no sooner had Barnes been killed in an auto accident than a brooding gang of art-thirsty white collar ‘robbers’ began taking the Barnes to task (and to court) in order to pry open the collection and, against the explicit instructions of the Barnes will, move the art to downtown Philadelphia.

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The Art of the Steal does an adequate job of maintaining the thematic feel of an older heist film, setting up the major players while flitting images of the bounty across the screen. In fact, the first 30 minutes of the film are the most engaging, as we get to see the ascension of Barnes and his eventual abandonment of Philadelphia high society based on his (correct) beliefs about high art. The film parades influential people in front of the camera to give praise to Barnes for all that he’s done for art in America, with his keen eye and philanthropic heart. But as the film slides deeper into personal rifts with other rich folks around Philadelphia, one can’t help but wonder if Barnes might have come across as an affluent old eccentric, had we known him. And, more to the point, it’s far too easy to leave the theater and believe that there’s so much more going on that demands our attention. Ultimately, the real crises of hard-working folks will always be more compelling, more important, and more necessary.

Argott should not feel bad about The Art of the Steal, just because its premise is flawed. It is clearly a passion project for him, and and tirelessly researched one at that. And besides, the film is very crisply put together. Were these skills used for a larger purpose than art shifting hands (even illegally) between the rich hands, there is no doubt Argott would be getting much more of the attention that he rightfully deserves.

The Art of the Steal is an IFC film under limited release, and will be available in Los Angeles beginning March 12th.

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