Blighty’s contempo art scene, in all its venality and outright absurdity, is crying out for a good, scalding satire. What a shame that the black comedy “Boogie Woogie” delivers little more than a lukewarm spoof. Debutant helmer Duncan Ward and scribe Danny Moynihan (adapting his novel) are clearly aiming for an Altmanesque portrait of a milieu, but despite an impressive cast, the flat script and clumsy helming hardly put this in the same league as “Ready to Wear,” let alone “The Player” or “Nashville.” Unless PR and marketing departments get the tune exactly right, “Boogie” will remain a B.O. wallflower.
Several helicopter shots of the Thames ram home the point that the action is set in London, although actual street views are few and far between. Here, amoral art dealer Art Spindle (Danny Huston) runs a gallery that employs ambitious Beth Freemantle (Heather Graham) and rollerskating ingenue Paige (Amanda Seyfried).
Spindle is desperate to buy a Mondrian, titled “Boogie-Woogie,” off ailing Germanic tycoon Alfred Rhinegold (Christopher Lee, with a beard that makes him look like Michael Haneke), but Rhinegold’s wife (Joanna Lumley) and secretary (Simon McBurney) play Spindle off against rival bidders, including voracious collector Bob Maclestone (Stellan Skarsgard). Maclestone is having an affair with Beth, while his wife Jean (Gillian Anderson) beds upcoming artist Jo Richards (Jack Huston), who’s supposedly going out with Beth.
Meanwhile, Beth is keen to open her own gallery using money from Maclestone and plans to exhibit the work of artist Elaine (Jaime Winstone), a sexually predatory lesbian whose salacious video diary will rep the centerpiece of her first show. Like nearly everyone here, Elaine is willing to betray any friend or lover to get what she wants, even her best-friend/manager Dewey (Alan Cumming), the pic’s only sympathetic character.
Moynihan’s novel was originally set in the New York art scene, in which the author swam for a while as an artist and curator. The relocation of the story to London may explain why its tone feels several shades off the mark throughout. When characters here talk about aesthetics, the guff sounds like regurgitated bits from Artforum; when they’re just talking normally, it sounds like wooden, soap opera-speak. It all seems a waste of a cast that, collectively, might have been more than up to the task of something more improvisational in the style of Altman.
One would think helmer Duncan Ward — whose eclectic resume includes a docu about Polish artist Leon Tarasewicz, and who is married to powerful British curator Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst — would have known how to recalibrate the script to get the nuances of the milieu right. Unfortunately, the helming throughout is strictly pedestrian.
The British art scene’s ultimate insider, the artist Damian Hirst, is flatteringly mentioned in the dialogue and credited onscreen as the pic’s “art curator.” (Many of the artworks shown here — nearly all of them by name artists such as Bruce Nauman, Gavin Turk and the Chapman Brothers — are known to be in Hirst’s collection.) It’s tempting to speculate that his involvement may have inhibited the filmmakers from crafting a more savage, incisive portrait, lest Hirst’s chums were offended.
Even technically, the pic reps a subpar effort, from the shoddy lensing, credited to John Mathieson, to the old-fashioned, intrusive jazz score by Janusz Podrazik and Nigel Stone. The somewhat incoherent final reels suggests emergency triage in the editing room, which means pic at least has a brisk running time.