In this pleasantly kooky offering by prolific cinematographer and occasional director Caleb Deschanel, young Danny (Griffin O'Neal) is haunted by the memory of his father, Harry Masters, who was an escapologist of unparalleled brilliance as well as being a crook who died in prison. Hoping to follow in his father's footsteps, Danny seeks out his uncle and aunt (Gabriel Dell and Joan Hackett,) who eke out a living with a tacky mind-reading act. But Danny's skills with a lock pick soon catch the eye of Stu (Raul Julia,) the ambitious but decidedly unbalanced son of the town's corrupt mayor.
For the first twenty minutes or so, The Escape Artist looks like it's going to be some kind of forgotten gem. Deschanel's unfussy, unassuming direction is thoroughly engaging, and Danny is a refreshingly stoical, resourceful and ambivalent central character, someone who plays his cards close to his chest and never whines when things go wrong, but who also has an undercurrent of loneliness and vulnerability. He's played expertly by Griffin O'Neal, a young actor who would later lavish his skills on Assault of the Killer Bimbos (1988.)
The initial set-up, as Danny determinedly imposes himself on the hospitality of his uncle and aunt, is very beguiling indeed, and the exquisite Joan Hackett is wonderful as the spasmodically psychic Aunt Sybil. Unfortunately, as Danny becomes more involved with Stu and his half-baked plots to take over town hall, the storyline veers off on what seems like a tangent, and a great deal of promising material goes unexplored. Deschanel loses control of the tone, which veers uncomfortably – and sometimes pretentiously – between broad farce and moments of melodrama, and finally everything peters out in a mess of loose ends.
It's a shame, because there are some interesting talents at work here. Not that The Escape Artist is a total failure. Even as you register its flaws, you feel the film's delicate charm, and you have to give it props for individuality. It certainly left me curious to learn more about both Deschanel and O'Neal. The untidy story and lurches in tone mean this probably isn't one to try out on the kids, but fans of cult 80s cinema may well want to make room for it on their shelves.