Shifting from the jet-black absurdism of “Bartleby,” director Jonathan Parker jabs and pokes at the New York contemporary art world with some satirical success in “(Untitled).” Teasing today’s new realms in painting, conceptual art and music is almost too easy, and the impressive aspect of Parker’s latest is an evident grasp and respect for what’s worthy and worthless in the fecund present-day scene. The smart-ass comedy isn’t sustained throughout, but there’s more than enough here for a bright fest roadshow and theatrical gallery space.
Notably, this pic is one of the rare American indie films to land a world premiere at a fest prior to Sundance on the calendar (Palm Springs). And yet, it bears all the hallmarks of a prestige Sundance movie, from a hip cast including Adam Goldberg and Eion Bailey to a brilliant score by leading new music composer and Pulitzer winner David Lang.
The first film since “Art School Confidential” to seriously confront issues befuddling artists torn between their drives for personal expression and a demanding marketplace, “(Untitled)” surveys two art worlds repped by a pair of competitive brothers: terminally self-important composer Adrian (Goldberg) and commercially successful painter Josh (Bailey) — as well as the network of gallery owners, dealers, patrons, critics and audiences that put the work in the public sphere.
This is the kind of film in which a character is able to say, “It’s not my opinion, it’s my judgment,” and mean it, while also being the object of some ridicule by Parker and co-writer Catherine di Napoli. The precarious balancing act between satirizing pretentiousness and delivering a credible portrait of downtown culture is an almost impossible assignment, and if the pic doesn’t manage it all, the pursuit is admirable.
Josh’s success at the Madeleine Gray Gallery sticks in Adrian’s craw, as he struggles to draw flies at his own concerts, which sound hilariously influenced (in all the wrong ways) by the music of Mauricio Kagel, Harry Partch and Karlheinz Stockhausen. As composed by Lang, Adrian’s percussive noodlings and explosions are just serious enough to belong in a tiny concert hall, but bad enough to send most auds to the exits.
When Madeleine (Marley Shelton, in a sparkling performance), a gallerist and Josh’s would-be g.f., takes in the concert, she’s the only one to genuinely enjoy Adrian’s work, thus beginning a slapdash love affair that includes a commission for a gallery performance. The gallery is about to stage a show by hot artist Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones), who’s an obvious sub for Damien Hirst and his taxidermy-based creations, as well as the radical edge of conceptualists (artwork created cleverly by Kyle Ng and Sam Parker).
In this increasingly heady downtown mix are such ripe satirical characters as aspiring artist Monroe (Ptolemy Slocum), computer geek Porter (Zak Orth) and Adrian’s clarinetist (Lucy Punch), whose dinner date with Porter is a deviously choreographed scene worthy of Blake Edwards.
Because of its genuine concerns over what constitutes art in today’s world and its aim to love and ridicule its characters at the same time, “(Untitled)” needs a certain brilliance of execution that it lacks, which is why the third act feels unfulfilling. It doesn’t help that Goldberg is doing his hangdog schtick for the umpteenth time, taking away from Shelton, who superbly embodies the passions and raw ambitions of a young New York gallerist. Bailey is almost lost in the mix, while Slocum, Orth and Punch deliver distinctive support, and singer Svetlana Efremova has a knockout cameo.
As with “Bartleby,” interior spaces function as fully conceived worlds, with considerable credit going to d.p. Svetlana Cvetko’s widescreen vid lensing and David Snyder’s ace production design. Lang’s music in front of the camera is augmented by an exquisite, judiciously used soundtrack score (the composer’s first) teeming with itchy nervousness.