“Lying and Stealing” is a heist movie of a sort mostly seen in the 1960s, when movies like “Charade” found ingenious thieves played by glamorous stars preying upon the priceless knickknacks of the super-rich on the Riviera, and so forth. Such enterprises usually involved not just A-list personalities but lavish production values — all the better to realize that fantasy side of a decade that was stuck closer to Playboy Magazine and hotel-lounge luxury than to Free Love. If there was love (or at least sex) in these movies, it was going to be expensive.
But Matt Aselton’s film does not boast anyone so chic — or bankable — as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Nor does it lay on the splashy wish-fulfillment settings, though the movie does cough up a few locations at which a homeowner might credibly own an artwork worth more than most of us earn in a lifetime. Yet even given its budgetary limits and second-tier cast, “Lying and Stealing” manages to be a retro escapist pleasure — one whose cleverness might actually have been muffled by flashier surface assets.
Without them, we can appreciate more fully the confident craftsmanship that marries upscale criminal-romantic intrigue with the intricate deceptions in ’70s caper films like “The Sting.” This lightweight suspense exercise — which debuted exclusively on DirecTV a month before its July 12 limited theatrical release — isn’t going to be remembered so long as either of those predecessors. Still, it’s accomplished enough to merit the comparison.
Theo James (of the “Divergent” and “Underworld” franchises) plays Ivan, a dapper, somewhat aloof Los Angelean introduced at a private book-launch party high in the hills. No one suspects he is uninvited, yet when everyone else is distracted, he makes off with a Jeff Koons-style bunny sculpture, replacing it with a blow-up replica.
Ivan does indeed know his art, but doesn’t steal for the love of it; he steals because his ne’er-do-well father died owing major gambling debts to sleazy Dimitri (Fred Melamed), and Ivan is paying that off. Alas, Dimitri appears to be the kind of creditor who will never settle an account. Thus obligated to continue burgling, Ivan finds himself next assigned to lift a canvas by abstract expressionist Philip Guston, then a piece of highest-end Nazi memorabilia, and so on. Clearly, satisfying Dmitri’s demands is not going to end soon.
Ivan’s comfortable yet furtive, stripped-down life is further complicated by several new factors. First, he’s forced to take in older brother Ray (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a bipolar pill enthusiast whose resourcefulness around institutional rules has just got him ejected from yet another care facility. Second, Ivan has met “a girl,” aspiring actress Elyse (Emily Ratajkowski), with whom he has a lot in common — including resistance to intimacy, larcenous impulses, a penchant for disguise (she is a woman of many wigs), and hog-tying debt. (She’s blacklisted in the industry until she’s paid off something stolen in anger from a grabby-handed producer.) They decide to be professional allies well before they decide to be anything more.
Third, Ivan becomes aware that he’s acquired an FBI tail (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a situation that can only enrage trigger-tempered gangster Dimitri, but which just might also prove useful in getting rid of him. Playing those cards right eventually involves both Ray and Elyse in a climax that, like much of “Lying and Stealing,” is tensely credible yet presented with a certain cool flippancy, and whose little twists are surprising without ever growing too flamboyant.
Screenwriters Aselton and Adam Nagata (who also co-wrote the director’s prior feature a decade ago, labored indie quirkfest “Gigantic”) deftly balance low-key character seriocomedy and thriller elements, honing both to a modest but satisfying degree. Leads James and Ratajkowski are attractive here (espescially as costumed by Natalie O’Brien), all the more so because they’re given leeway to make a case for their roles’ moxie and intelligence before arriving at the stock “You’re hot, I’m hot, so let’s do this thing” juncture. Melamed underplays his way to a rather scary villainy; there are also good if more fleeting support turns.
Presumably, some favors were called in to access the few rich-collector environs utilized here. In any case, production designer David Batchelor Wilson and DP Corey Walter lend the film a handsome, sophisticated look that probably should have been beyond its means — although not one so ostentatiously glossy it obscures its content. The original score by Giova Ostinelli and Sonya Belousova doesn’t go for traditional swagger or retro irony, but rather nervously on-edge electronica that provides a certain wry tension.