Few subjects are more ripe for ridicule than pretentious artists, and Jonathan Parker’s “(Untitled)” skewers the world of contemporary art in a way that’s insightful and funny without becoming a broad parody. The characters, satirical though they are, seem like real human beings. Parker helps us understand them even as he delights in their foibles.
Adrian Jacobs (Adam Goldberg) is a composer of “experimental” music, which means it doesn’t have melodies or sound nice. “Harmony was a capitalist plot to sell pianos,” he says in the same way he says everything, which is scornfully. Ever scowling, the space between his eyebrows making a permanent “11,” Adrian performs concerts full of random banging on the piano, atonal horn blasts, and the sound of dropping a heavy chain in a bucket. He hates that audiences don’t appreciate his work, though he’d hate being successful, too, since that would mean he’d “sold out,” or something.
Adrian’s brother, Josh (Eion Bailey), is a painter in the bland, abstract style, the kind of work that hangs in hotels and doctors’ offices because it is inoffensive and makes no statements. But Josh believes he is a real artist. He is dismayed that his friend Madeleine (Marley Shelton), who owns an art gallery, will help him sell paintings to buyers but won’t give him a show.
Madeleine’s position is that she only displays work that’s raw and meaningful, which usually translates into inaccessible and weird. Commercial stuff like Josh’s paintings (which he foolishly believes are meaningful AND commercial) stay in the back room. She’s currently showing stuff by Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones), of whose work someone enthuses, “Taxidermy, household objects, decay, repulsion — everything you’d want in a Ray Barko!”
One of Madeleine’s patrons is Porter Canby (Zak Orth), a nouveau-riche poser who views art as an investment, a way to make money. He has absolutely no sense of aesthetic value or beauty. “Art doesn’t look as good when it goes down in value” is the best he can do at summarizing his tastes.
Since Madeleine is eager to believe whatever B.S. an artist wants to feed her about his complex brilliance, the more bizarre the better, she takes to Adrian right away. (Josh brings her to one of his brother’s concerts.) She thinks Adrian’s jarring, unlistenable cacophony would be the perfect accompaniment for a show at her gallery, the musical equivalent of the pretentious crap she promotes — which, bear in mind, she genuinely admires.
There is subsequently a romantic relationship between Madeleine and Adrian, which produces jealousy in Josh. This aspect of the film isn’t as well executed as the rest of it; there’s no indication that Josh ever had a legitimate claim on Madeleine’s affections anyway, and the subplot distracts from the more central questions: What is “art”? Where is the line between art and commerce? Can they co-exist? These issues have been dealt with before, of course, and “(Untitled)” doesn’t reach any new conclusions, but it’s a sophisticated and entertaining re-examination of them.
Goldberg is very funny as Adrian, his naturally neurotic demeanor making the “misunderstood genius” relatable and human, not just pompous. And while some satirists don’t see a need for their characters to learn anything, Parker (who co-wrote the screenplay with Catherine DiNapoli) lets Adrian find some clarity about his life and his work. Being an artist doesn’t mean you have to suffer, and not everything that’s popular is terrible. “(Untitled)” isn’t just a takedown of highfalutin creative types but a smart, thoughtful deflating of their egos.
B (1 hr., 36 min.; )