Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ***½
(Untitled) sends up the pretensions of the art world, which seems an easy target, but while there are quite a few comical moments, director/writer Jonathan Parker (Bartleby) doesn't take the low road. (I like what Roger Ebert wrote: "It's easy to take cheap shots at conceptual art. '(Untitled)' doesn't do that. It takes expensive shots.") Character-driven, Parker's script (with Catherine DiNapoli) seems a slightly snarkier cousin to Jonathan Ames' HBO series Bored to Death, both New York-set and full of identifiable, flawed characters who are gently ribbed but not deeply mocked. In fact (Untitled) seems to take more delight in criticizing critics - portrayed here as rude and unfeeling - than in skewering artists.
Adam Goldberg plays atonal musician Adrian Jacobs, a talented pianist who generally has little interest in playing straightforward pieces and who takes his experimental music very seriously. The film to its credit takes it fairly seriously too -- oddly I found myself appreciating and sometimes even enjoying his soundscapes -- even while still showing his insufferable side.
Adrian's brother Josh (Eion Bailey, who played Jann Wenner in Almost Famous and is from my home county, Santa Barbara) is a painter whose works are bland but colorful, "peppy/happy" and popular, to Adrian's disdain they hang on hotel lobby walls, while he seems to get off on making music that is purposely unapproachable. While clearly the film sees Adrian as pretentious, even insufferably so at times, Parker understands the point of view of an artist with scruples, and Goldberg manages to make the brooding artist both sympathetic and earnest without caricature. He allows his Adrian no sense of humor, but that deadpan approach makes some of the scenes all the more humorous.
In a scene both genuinely amusing and sexy, the art gallery owner Madeline (Marley Shelton, Heather Graham-ish but lovely in her own right) and Adrian undress in a crazed frenzy of complicated clothing, hers full of random zippers and pieces. In a laugh out loud moment Adrian discovers Madeline's booksmart glasses look is a complete affectation. In fact, the middle of the film is where it really finds its comic stride, especially a riotous scene where Adrian's clarinetist (British actress Lucy Punch, whose facial expressions are priceless) is clumsily romanced by an awkward wealthy art collector (Zak Orth); or when Madeline and Adrian visit a sociophobic artist whose work is so simple-minded it's practically nonexistent.
It's also great to see Vinnie Jones, renowned for many an "Oi!" kind of role in British action films, get a shot at playing a bit against type as a famous artist specializing in taxidermic pieces that he doesn't even do himself. He plays the character subtle but appropriately arrogant. Veteran character actor Ben Hammer (his career spans 50 years) has a lovely cameo as famed experimental composer Morton Cabot, so realistically portrayed and presented that if you didn't know better you'd swear he was a real person. Look fast, too, for David Cale (composer/singer/actor) and singer Dean Wareham (of Galaxie 500 fame) as music critics at a concert.
The film loses a little bit of momentum in its final third but wraps things up perfectly in my estimation -- not neatly, not tidily, mind you, because provocative art rarely is, but full of satisfaction, nonetheless.
The DVD, alas, offers no extras, so the film itself will have to suffice, Maybe its makers were worried audio commentary would come off as too pretentious.
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