Art and Craft

Fooling the art world and almost everybody else

With The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, scoring the biggest box office opening so far this year, and the holiday movie season expected to bring in hundreds of millions of more dollars, it’s easy to overlook movies without Oscar-worthy actors or CGI effects.

Yes, it’s an art house documentary, but it has all you would want in a feature film: mystery, suspense, and an intriguing albeit deeply flawed main character, who is pursued by an obsessed albeit flawed, good guy.

That’s not to say there won’t be Oscar buzz for the documentary Art and Craft, which is currently playing in about 4,100 fewer theaters in the United States than Mockingjay, Part 1. In fact, theaters probably made more money on popcorn during the latest Hunger Games offering than Art and Craft has made total. And that’s probably just popcorn sales in Kansas.

Don’t sell Art and Craft short, however, in terms of intrigue and entertainment value. Yes, it’s an art house documentary, but it has all you would want in a feature film: mystery, suspense, and an intriguing albeit deeply flawed main character, who is pursued by an obsessed albeit flawed good guy.

The film follows Mark Landis, who for 30 years has duped art museums all over the country by forging art works of Picasso, Cassatt, and even Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. Landis, uninterested in making money off his deceit, disguises himself as a philanthropist, donating his faux works. Landis painted these masterworks well enough to fool just about everybody. Almost everybody.

Enter Matthew Leininger, a registrar who exposed Landis’ ruse after Landis donated some of his “original” works to the Oklahoma City Museum of Art in 2008. After Leininger made his shocking discoveries, he alerted other museums that housed Landis donations and then went on a personal crusade to bring Landis to justice. The problem was that while Landis’ actions were viewed as immoral, he technically didn’t do anything illegal in the minds of the FBI because no money had changed hands.

As the film reveals itself, viewers learn more about both Landis and Leininger. Landis, a former art student who has schizophrenia and suffered through a few nervous breakdowns, lives off disability income in an apartment that serves as his studio. He’s an eccentric: he spills coffee on the backs of paintings to make them look old, and always draws while old TV shows play in the background of his apartment. He shows no remorse as he immerses himself in his deception, even impersonating a priest on one of his donation trips. He clearly relishes his role as both artist and philanthropist.

Meanwhile, Leininger’s obsession grows to the point where his employer basically lays him off because he spends too much time on his side project of chasing Landis. Adding insult to injury is that while Leininger can expose Landis, he has no real recourse to punish Landis for his actions.

The filmmakers simultaneously weave Landis and Leininger’s stories, which hints to the viewers that the cat-and-mouse pursuit will end up with an eventual meeting. This all plays out in surprising ways, however, and brings forth questions about what constitutes art, the complexities of mental illness, and the blurred lines of good versus evil. Landis is a legitimately talented artist but chooses to invest his time in forgeries. Leininger is a dedicated registrar but pours his energy into the side project of chasing Landis.

The movie conjures up another recent documentary that explores some of the same issues, the 2010 Oscar-nominated film Exit Through the Gift Shop, which focuses on graffiti and ownership. Art and Craft is a worthy companion piece and is probably heading for an Oscar nomination itself.

Landis is a character worth watching and is as complicated and intriguing as any fictitious character in recent memory. Art and Craft will most likely end up making half a billion dollars less than Mockingjay but those who seek out Landis’ story will be rewarded.

3 out of 4 stars. Not rated.