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Fatal Abstractions

movie_untitled2Sly 'Untitled' skewers contemporary art/music scene

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder. But for would-be culture vultures uncertain about their own taste, there are plenty of opportunists out there eager to show them where to look. This tension between true artistic value and hype, steak and sizzle, is the theme of Untitled, Jonathan Parker's wry satire on contemporary culture. Set in the rarefied milieu of new music and postmodern art, it deftly exposes the preciousness of young wannabee aesthetes desperately trying to impose the shock of the new and make their mark on an already jaded and overcrowded cultural landscape.

The film's title is itself a sly joke, the common designation in galleries for abstract or incomprehensible art pieces into which there is no other point of access for the viewer. Co-scripted by Parker and Catherine DiNapoli, the story revolves around two arty brothers in New York. Josh (Eion Bailey) paints big, colorful canvases punctuated by the occasional black dot; they're technically abstract, but in a quaint, old-fashioned way that vaguely recalls Joan Miró (without the graphic or intellectual content).

His brother, Adrian (Adam Goldberg) is a brooding composer of new music. The pieces he performs (in mostly empty venues) with his three-person trio involve extreme dissonance, random yelling, and percussive effects like a chain rattled across a metal bucket. Asked what audience he's trying to teach, he opines that “the marketplace is not the definition of culture,” and claims he doesn't want to be popular—at which he succeeds impressively. To pay the rent, he plays elevator music in a ritzy piano bar, where his playing is drowned out by customers' ringtones.

In the center of their aspirations—and the movie—is Madeleine (Marley Shelton), hip young proprietress of a Chelsea art gallery. With her severe blonde chignon, black leather skirts, and wardrobe of trendy eyeglasses (purely for fashion's sake, as the lenses are plain glass), she prides herself on her eye for the “edgy.” The minute she hears Adrian's ensemble, she convinces him the perfect venue is her gallery, where she champions such dubious conceptual artists as a raucous Brit (Vinnie Jones) whose scary assemblages involve taxidermic animals, and a wispy shut-in whose “art” pieces include a thumb tack, or a Post-it, stuck on the wall.

Madeleine also handles Josh's work, but it's so tame, she's embarrassed to hang it in the gallery. It's the only work that ever sells, however, so she deals it out of the back room like the commodity it is, to her one regular client, a woman who buys “peppy” art for hospitals. Thus, Parker sets the stage for ironic encounters, various romantic entanglements, and plenty of throwaway jokes on the state of the art biz. “Harmony is a capitalist plot to sell pianos,” grumps Adrian, proud that his music “isn't connected to life in any way.” (Asked what it is connected to, he has no answer.) One artist believes “art can be administrative,” meaning he has minions to actually create “his” work.

Parker's sharpest-running gag involves a clueless collector (Zak Orth) “who did something with a computer, and now he's rich.” Too unschooled to develop his own taste, he allows himself to be bullied by Madeleine into buying  a roomful of stuff he neither likes nor understands, convinced that “Collecting is all about expressing myself.” More to the point, he admits that when he talks about art at parties, “I don't seem like such a dull guy.”

Goldberg somewhat redeems himself for his obnoxious turn in Julie Delpy's 2 Days In Paris; at least his wary, comical curmudgeon Adrian is too morose to talk movie_untitledmuch. Shelton nails the über-gallerista who believes in art for notoriety's sake; she actually weeps when she's forced to hang a “commercial” show. And Parker provides a gentle epiphany when Adrian meets an old lion of an avant garde composer who clues him into the secret of art: “an artist must find meaning in the process.” What a concept.

UNTITLED ★★★ With Adam Goldberg, Marley Shelton, and Vinnie Jones. Written by Jonathan Parker and Catherine DiNapoli. Directed by Jonathan Parker. A Samuel Goldwyn release. Rated R. 96 minutes.

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