Art shouldn't just be for highbrow types. A painting can have special meaning. Even for an ordinary blue-collar Joe. At least that's the message from director Pete Hewitt. This is knockabout comedy that might make Woody Allen fans affectionately recall Small Time Crooks, even though this film is very different to Allen's caper and wears its point on its sleeve. "Great art is not solely the domain of the connoisseur," says Hewitt. "Anyone can be emotionally transported by a few paint smudges on a canvas." Hewitt (Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, Thunderpants) has here come up with a grand robbery that is for love rather than money. Three misfit security guards at the museum embark on a dangerous journey to save the things they hold dear.
Decorated with a galaxy of stars, the Maiden Heist has been avidly awaited by fans worrying if it will see the light of day. In December 2008, the distribution arm of the Yari Film Group responsible filed for bankruptcy. Yari's Emily Lambert e-mailed the Globe saying, "I don't anticipate any screenings of The Maiden Heist in the near future," and producer Rob Paris went scrambling to find a new distributor. With a comparatively modest budget of $20 million, Paris feels he has got great value. "Our movie needed the scope the size of the Worcester Art Museum," he says. "It gave the film a look, a richness, that we otherwise wouldn't have gotten." The WAM is used to establish the interior of the fictional Boston Art Museum (BAM) in which our story takes place.
Scriptwriter Michael LeSieur had a top comedy actor in his previous hit (You, Me & Dupree) in the form of Owen Wilson. In The Maiden Heist, the chameleon-like talents of William H Macy first spring to mind as being suited to comedy, due to his Fargo fame, when he played the police story with subtle humour. Christopher Walken and Morgan Freeman are better known for their serious roles, but we should remember that Walken has also starred in comedy (Wedding Crashers, Hairspray), even if it is to play the straight man against the likes of Owen Wilson. Freeman has had brushes with his funny side in Bruce Almighty. Heading up the supporting cast is Marcia Gay Harden, who won an Oscar playing an artist (Lee Krasner) in the art biopic, Pollock. But it is probably fair to say that all these great stars are known primarily for their power to bring great depth to serious dramatic roles. There were moments in The Maiden Heist where I felt they were bumbling through the comedy rather than playing bumbling heisters. I found this a bit worrying as I have deep respect for their work. But maybe other viewers could find the apparent mismatch of seemingly inappropriate casting oddly rewarding.
The big star of The Maiden Heist though is of course the central painting. Roger (Christopher Walken) stares at 'The Lonely Maiden' for years. First as a way to pass time, but now as a way to address or replace what is lacking in his life. The painting has become his passion. His obsession. Supplanting the passion he once felt for his wife. This particular artwork in the film was especially created by painter Jeremy Lipking. "When I first met with the director he opened up the Gabriel Weisberg book Beyond Impressionism: the Naturalist Impulse, (which is probably the most worn out book on my shelf) and said, 'We need something like this.' A painting in the manner of Naturalist painters George Clausen, Emile Friant and Jules Bastien Lepage. I had to finish the painting in 7 days. It normally would have taken me a month or longer to do something this size. I got artist model Toni Czechorosky help me out with the period costume." Macy's character, on the other hand, is obsessed with a statue. Creating it involved photographing a naked Macy from a three-hundred and sixty degree perspective. (The photographs went to a sculptor in Los Angeles, who brought in another model and photographed him in the same fashion before creating a mould for the statue.)
The Maiden Heist quickly sold out at its opening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It's a light-hearted caper that makes for undemanding viewing. I don't see audiences flocking to galleries as a result, but who knows? While Roger might find his wife has been his lonely maiden all along, many viewers may more identify with the bit where he flits to Florida with the missis. Missing out on the art appreciation stuff seems a convenient bypass. If this is the case, the film is somewhat hypocritical in its claim about art and the general masses. It uses the notion to entertain without encouraging us to seriously engage. LeSieur, who wrote the script as a film school thesis project, may well be an art enthusiast. But the idea that ordinary people don't love art is a bit worrying to those of us that do. Shortly after I visited (during extensive bar-hopping) the beautiful Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, it was victimised by amateur thieves who posed as security guards. If you see me exit the Tate Modern with a naked William H Macy under my arm, please shoot me. Or take him back – he is a high-value asset of the acting profession and should not be high-jacked. "But it was a maiden heist, officer. . ."
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