Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On DVD: "The Maiden Heist"

More often than not, if you’ve never heard of a picture that’s chock full of people you know, well, there’s a reason. Marquee stars turn up in films like Personal Effects or Powder Blue or Even Money, and someone strolling through a Blockbuster might pick up a copy and scratch their head and think, “Well, I just must have missed that one,” unaware that they’re holding, in their hands, the product of a mercy killing.

Poor Morgan Freeman has been in a shocking number of these straight-to-DVD films over the last couple of years (Edison Force, The Contract, and the stunningly inept The Code), but The Maiden Heist isn’t another turkey unceremoniously dumped to Netflix. Indeed, the folks behind this all-star caper (the cast also includes Christopher Walken, William H. Macy, and Marcia Gay Harden—all actors who brighten up just about any project they wander into) wanted badly for it to hit theaters; it seems, according to NPR, that it fell by the wayside due to the financial troubles of the distribution arm of the Yari Film Group, the film’s production company. It was shopped to other distributors, but no one wanted to jump because ancillary rights (including DVD) had already been sold to Sony. So, with theatrical distribution a no-go, The Maiden Heist makes its world premiere on small screens.

Walken, Freeman, and Macy play a trio of security guards at a Boston art museum, each of whom has developed an attachment to a particular work of art during their long hours of standing around staring at paintings and sculptures. When they find out that the museum is shipping much of its permanent collection to a facility in Denmark, including their beloved works, they’re heartbroken; after ruling out following the art (“Do you know how far Denmark is?” Macy asks. “And it’s a really hard language!”), they decide to swipe the three pieces during the move, replacing them with forgeries and keeping the originals for themselves.

Michael LeSieur’s screenplay has an intriguing set-up, and the heist itself is fairly clever. But taken as a whole, the script is pretty thin stuff. The three men aren’t given much in the way of characters to play (the contrast between Freeman and Walken’s gee-whiz enthusiasm and Macy’s paranoid short fuse is about the only noteworthy beat they get), so they mostly end up filling out the blank spaces with bits and pieces of their own, pre-existing personas. Sometimes this works—Freeman seems to have fun playing a goofy eccentric, and Macy finds the right frustrated note (though his frequent nudity is a running gag that never quite pays off like they want it to).

But director Peter Hewitt (whose unfortunate filmography includes Garfield and Zoom) can’t figure out what the hell to do with Walken. He doesn’t have the skill of a Spielberg, who managed to get the iconic actor to sit on his tics and deliver a genuine, naturalistic performance in Catch Me If You Can; this regular Joe turn requires that same kind of discipline, but Hewitt and Walken never settle on a tone for his performance, and he occasionally lapses into his distinctive oddball cadences and flourishes (“I’ve been at it… all day… I need a break, ha ha!”). The usually-reliable Marcia Gay Harden is also allowed to wildly overplay the role of his long-suffering wife.

There are moments that work, like the inventive and pleasurable run-up to the big job (in Thomas Crown-style split screen) and the genuine suspense of the caper itself, though there’s some odd logical trouble at the climax (Macy is speaking at full volume during a scene where he would be immediately discovered). But the picture is so laid-back, it’s hard to muster up too much enthusiasm for its outcome; the filmmakers note that they were attempting to replicate the style and tone of the Ealing comedies, but they can’t match the clockwork comic momentum of those films.

The Maiden Heist
is a quiet, low-key film with some small pleasures, and while it’s better than your average straight-to-DVD effort, it is weaker than one might expect considering its powerhouse cast. It has some charm and a few chuckles, but not much more than that.

"The Maiden Heist" hits DVD on Tuesday, November 24th.


  1. I loved it and have watched it about 9 times. I would watch it again, too! It's quiet, no bloodshed, subtly funny, and well acted in pleasant environments. Maybe that's boring to the average movie goer, because it lacks vampires, gore, and disgusting people. I think The Maiden Heist is a masterpiece. (a mistress piece)

  2. A spot-on review. It just goes to show that a good movie needs to have more than an all star cast to fulfill an audience. Every part of the production has to match the caliber of your actors, every part working as part of a well-oiled machine, lest you end up with a final product that leaves the viewer wondering why it wasn't better than it was. A Ferrari does you no good when your tires are flat, your watch isn't of much use if one of the cogs inside is misaligned, and the most impressive actors can't save a film with amateur direction and a weak script. While watchable, it's the kind of movie that almost makes me feel patronized as an audience member. The film was capable of delivering more than it did, and the audience is capable of receiving more than it was given.