Adrian Jacobs (Adam Goldberg) is a prickly composer on the New York experimental-music scene. His compositions, which he performs with a trio in sparsely populated theaters, are a clamor of kicked buckets, crackling bubble wrap and sudden ensemble shrieks. "I just hate all his work," a critic says, behind his back. But Adrian is intransigent. "Harmony," he says, "was a capitalist plot to sell pianos."
Unlike Adrian, who's forced to take demeaning supper-club gigs to pay the rent, his brother Josh (Eion Bailey) is a roaring success — a painter whose canvasses fetch $10,000 each. True, they're insipidly sunny abstracts that are bought by the yard for indifferent display in hospital lobbies and corporate boardrooms. Still, their endless salability has made Josh one happy artist — or has it?
Josh's paintings are the gold mine that keeps Madeleine Gray (Marley Shelton) and her Chelsea art gallery going. Her commissions on his work allow her to promote the edgier artists she really loves — like the coarse Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones), who expresses himself with stapled cats and whole stuffed cows. But Ray is getting restless. He's being courted by a rival gallery with promises of higher sale prices. Worse yet, Josh, too, is growing restive. He wants his canvasses to be acknowledged as real art, not just commercial décor, and he's pressuring Madeleine to mount an exhibit devoted solely to his work — or else he'll move on as well.
The artistic avant-garde is always ripe for satirical targeting, and director Jonathan Parker's new movie, "(Untitled)," has a lot of fun with it. What makes the picture more interesting than it might have been if it were just a ritual trashing of familiar stereotypes is its commitment to the idea — a cliché with truth at its core — that the true significance of a work of art can only really be judged by posterity. In the here and now, most artists of a radical creative bent — whatever their true merits may ultimately prove to be — must weather public incomprehension and financial injustice. Adrian's music may sound like nothing more than noise, but he hears its structure in his head, and he's baffled that no one else can feel it. Maybe someday ...
The movie derives a lot of energy from its skilful cast. Goldberg, with his serious beard and helmet of dark hair (he peers up from under it like some querulous sea creature) perfectly embodies downtown disgruntlement. And the electrifyingly photogenic Shelton gets completely inside the ambitious ice queen Madeleine — this woman may not have a real-world heart, but her love of new art is genuine. Lucy Punch has a sweet, fuddled charm as the reed player in Adrian's concert group. Zak Orth is amusing throughout as a wealthy, taste-free collector who's never heard of Matisse, but knows that trendy new work can be a solid investment. ("Art does not look as good when it goes down in value," he says.) And Ptolemy Slocum brings a wonderful stuttery presence to the role of Monroe, a new conceptual artist who's even more out-there than Ray, and may soon displace him. ("I think I want what I want to say to go without saying," he says.)
"(Untitled)" is often rousingly funny — as in the make-out scene where Adrian attempts to extricate Madeleine from her clothing and is nearly defeated by its welter of fashionable clamps and buckles. But the movie also has moments of real feeling. There's a glowing sequence in which Adrian, after an illuminating talk with an acclaimed older composer, goes home to try something new. Putting aside his usual commitment to listener confrontation (but retaining his avoidance for anything so corny as a tone center), he sits at a piano constructing a new piece that's engagingly harmonic without compromising his bristling artistic integrity. The music carries him away, and us along with it.
"(Untitled)" is a small gem of a movie. Can it find the audience it deserves? Given the vagaries of indie distribution, it'll have to be sought out. But it's so worth finding.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Antichrist", also new in theaters this week.
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