‘Ruben Brandt, Collector’ Film Review: In Art-Caper Animation, Thievery Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

A therapist is obsessed with masterpieces, and director Milorad Krstic is similarly drawn both to high art and high cinematic style

Ruben Brandt Collector
Sony Pictures Classics

Milorad Krstic’s alluring, acrobatic animated feature “Ruben Brandt, Collector” tells the story of a thief with an unlikely motivation: He steals art because he has nightmares about art. And since he has nightmares about the most famous paintings in the world, he has to acquire those specific paintings, in the process becoming a world-renowned villain.

It’s a sexy, exciting tale that’s equally inspired by classical and pop art. The visual influences are found in museums, with characters and backgrounds lifted from Manet and Picasso, but the storytelling style is straight out of Mario Bava’s “Danger Diabolik,” with a cinematic philosophy more akin to Brian De Palma’s Hitchcockian pastiches.

Like Brandt himself, Krstic seems eager to possess every work of art that inspires him and to put them all on display. The question the film never quite answers is, Does that collection of influences stand on its own, or is it just a disconnected hodgepodge of really neat stuff?

“Ruben Brandt, Collector” stars Iván Kamarás (“Strike Back”) as the voice of the title character, a psychologist whose unique methods transform his patients’ problems into high art. Coincidentally, they all happen to be expert thieves, overcoming issues like kleptomania, or an uncontrollable compulsion to brag about or leave calling cards at the scenes of their crimes. They overcome these hangups by painting what they’re really trying to steal or by becoming “living statues.”

Brandt is such a great psychologist that his patients decide to return the favor. He’s haunted by nightmares about Andy Warhol’s “Triple Elvis” and Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin,” which try to murder him in terrifyingly surreal methods. So his patients conspire to steal those paintings, and every other classic work that’s giving Ruben Brandt guff, and Brandt soon joins them. It may be against the law, but at least it’s working.

The animation in “Ruben Brandt, Collector” ranges from charmingly naïve to elegant and complicated, with simplistic backgrounds that focus all our attention on the unique characters. All the figures in “Ruben Brandt” seem to have emerged directly from a painting, and some of them are literally two-dimensional (which makes slipping under doors or behind paintings a breeze).

But Krstic takes all these high-minded images and shoves them into elaborate parkour escape sequences, death-defying car chases and high-stakes shootouts. It’s a thrill to love art in the world of “Ruben Brandt, Collector.” Everyone looks like a masterpiece; every building looks like a comic-book lair. It’s exhilarating to watch this film transition from Hollywood-ized physical feats to nightmares Junji Ito would be proud of, by way of “Dick Tracy” noir.

And yet all that exhilaration seems to exist solely for its own sake. Director Krstic is the real collector here, arranging “Ruben Brandt” like an obsessive-compulsive arranges a display case. He’s placed these influences in an order that looks a lot like a colorful super-villain origin story, but to what end never becomes clear. The film doesn’t condemn Ruben Brandt, nor does it seem to think his criminality has a deeper meaning.

For a film that evokes masterpieces throughout the centuries, it’s frustrating that “Ruben Brandt, Collector” has no lofty ambition of its own. Without it, it’s a collection, an art installation without care.

But it is also, and this matters most of all, exceptionally seductive. Krstic’s eclectic tastes may lack depth but they are dynamic and exciting. “Ruben Brandt, Collector” is a wonderful heist film, a thrilling action-adventure, a gorgeous visual feast, and an intriguing look at an artist whose greatest talent is recognizing the value of the art inside others. Whether that describes Ruben Brandt or Milorad Krstic is a question to consider long after the movie’s over.