“The Music Man” gave us the perfect prototype of a charlatan: charismatic, theatrical, sociable. Mark Landis is none of those things, which makes his rich history of duping people all the more fascinating. Landis is tiny, bald and slightly stooped with a hushed, high-pitched voice and emotionless delivery. He’s awkward and wears his eccentricities on his sleeve, and yet none of his oddities were red flags for the dozens of museums he hoodwinked.
Landis’s duplicity was exposed in 2008 by Matthew Leininger, then a registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, and since then numerous stories have come out about the con artist, now 59. The documentary “Art and Craft” adds to the lore. It’s a funny, fascinating look at why Landis became an art forger, how he got caught and what he plans to do in the future, which may be more of the same.
Landis’s scheme was as curious as he is. He pretended to be a philanthropist, a priest or the executor of a family estate, and he traveled to museums to bequeath pricey pieces by such artists as Paul Signac, Pablo Picasso and even Dr. Seuss. The works ended up on walls, although they weren’t authentic; they were reproductions by Landis. He received no money for the art, so technically his strange hobby wasn’t criminal. But for Leininger, who was one of the deceived, Landis’s craft was a maddening personal affront.
“He messed with the wrong registrar,” Leininger says during an interview, and it becomes clear that his quest to stop Landis has become an obsession. At one point Leininger pulls out a news story featuring a picture of the forger and asks his young daughter who it is. “Mark Landis,” she says with pride.
Landis has made a lot of people very angry, and the movie deals with a serious issue — namely the way obsessions take control of us. Yet the filmmakers keep the tone light as they follow Landis on one of his “donation” visits and chat with him about his life. Stephen Ulrich’s score, which is sometimes noirish and sometimes jazzy, has a jaunty, winking feel. And the directors have a keen eye for humorous details, whether it’s an impossibly long ash on the end of Landis’s cigarette or the way he inconspicuously consumes alcohol before important meetings by drinking it out of a blue Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia bottle. Many of Landis’s more philosophical musings tend to come verbatim from old movies.
Landis has a history of mental illness, having spent a year hospitalized for “a nervous breakdown.” That might make the viewer a bit uneasy, wondering if directors Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker have taken advantage of a sick man. And yet the artist enjoys the attention. He lives alone in his late mother’s apartment, but if his never-ending talking is any indication, the solitude doesn’t appear to suit him. Just when he starts to seem like a sympathetic character, you might begin to wonder who exactly is taking advantage of whom.
★ ★ ★
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. 89 minutes.