Sometimes, the most unusual circumstances create the best stories. While films like Ratatouille preach that anyone can cook, it’s even more remarkable when someone truly pulls the wool over our eyes. Decades after a famous painting was stolen from an Arizona museum, it resurfaced out of the blue. Director Allison Otto tracks the story, including two of history’s most unlikely perpetrators of a major art heist. As a result, The Thief Collector is wildly entertaining and features some of the funniest reenactments of the year.
Otto utilizes talking head interviews and hilarious reenactments to tell the story of Jerry and Rita Alter. World travelers and teachers, the two lived an eccentric life but were seen as a fun part of their community. However, after Jerry and Rita passed away, their family needed to move on from their many possessions. When the crew began to go through all the art and statues, one caught their eye. Little did anyone know, Jerry and Rita had stolen Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre,” one of the most valuable paintings in the world.
To recreate the 1985 heist and a series of flashbacks, Otto recruits Glenn Howerton and Sarah Minnich. Hot off another excellent week with Blackberry, Howerton once again proves his many talents. He brings out the humor of the heists, seemingly tripping his way into pulling off the heist. This time, Howerton plays a far more subservient and underappreciated tactician of the couple. There’s an anger simmering beneath the surface. Minnich brings out the bubbly and silly side of Rita. Her gregarious nature makes us wonder why the two are together at all. She plays up the role as a nearly silent performer and refuses to be overshadowed by Howerton.
Otto’s direction makes The Thief Collector sing. There’s comedic tension throughout, and the reenactments are hilarious to watch. With her editors, Otto extracts every bit of humor throughout the film. Yet it’s the moments of disbelief that ring the most authentic. The Alters got away with their plans because they could blend into their environments. Watching everyone, from art historians to personal friends, reveal their disbelief further adds to the underdog story.
However, Otto also confronts the darker side of the couple. Much of Jerry’s books and writers indicate the anger that he kept out of sight. Additionally, the stories the Alters told feel impossible, only for there to be evidence of their validity. Some of these expositions are scary and downright horrifying. At one point, they watched an actual battle with death and casualties in an indigenous setting. They moved in art circles in New York and traveled to the most remote places on the globe. Yet these could have been covers to allow their string of heists to continue.
Where The Thief Collector falls short is in evidence. We know they stole “Woman-Ochre,” and that confirmed story is the only one we can fact-check. There are circumstantial ties to other thefts, but many have loose ties and speculation. This makes for entertaining twists, but the Alters’ appeal as documentary subjects comes from the truth. Nothing about them said they were capable of what they pulled off. On the contrary, they were silly and eccentric. Yet by embellishing and trying to play up other things, they could have achieved, The Thief Collector cannot dig deeper into the absurdity of their lives as they lived it.
The Thief Collector will make most audiences very happy and tells a wild story. Otto proves herself an excellent documentarian, and it should be exciting to see where she goes from here. The story of art theft should not be this entertaining. But when your subjects are as interesting as the Alters, there’s a lot of fun to be had.