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Review: (Untitled)

By  · Published on October 23rd, 2009

(Untitled) is a satire with its finger squarely on the pulse of the 21st century art world. It’s a film for anyone who’s stood in a modern art exhibit, stared at one of its installations and pondered the age old conundrum, the source of many a freshman lit essay: What makes this art? Director Jonathan Parker, who co-wrote the screenplay with Catherine DiNapoli, expands from that fundamental starting point to consider the types of people that might me driven to make such things and whether, in the end, to dismiss them is to be robbed of a defining component of the age.

It’s a sharp movie, pitched at a tone located squarely between archness and sincerity. The combination of its twin settings of blindingly white galleries and garishly designed New York apartments, when blended with an all-around cacophonic feel, lends the picture a surrealistic edge. Starring Adam Goldberg and Marley Shelton, two actors well-equipped to give a certain convincing air to their affectations, it traces the collision of the experimental sound band headed by Adrian Jacobs (Goldberg) with the world of ambitious gallery owner Madeline Gray (Shelton). She, like he, hears beauty in the discordant sounds, jumbled aesthetics and strange digressions. Others hear nothing but noise. Conflicts, both personal and professional, take shape.

Parker has some fun with the more outsized personalities comprising the milieu, smartly applying Vinnie Jones’ characteristic tough guy persona to the self-obsessed Ray Barko, whose gory taxidermy is regularly featured by Madeline and seems more befitting of a Coney Island freak show. Goldberg plays angry well, successfully wearing the hat of the self-serious artist, snarling and brooding as he’s tormented by the need to fulfill his vision but always attuned to the vulnerability at Adrian’s core. Similarly, Shelton – who dons pairs of faux eyeglasses, tight creaky leather and bushy grass skirts – builds her character’s self-obsessed, too-serious demeanor with such relentless focus that it’s clear she’s compensating for a profound inner emptiness. They’ve all mastered the art of being funny without trying to be, mining the humor inherent in a situation rather than forcibly applying it.

Cinematographer Svetlana Cvetko pointedly emphasizes the background in most of the shots, framing the characters’ absurdist behavior and purposefully pretentious conversations against a backdrop of garish hanging objects, bare walls and minimalist paintings. The environment informs the proceedings in much the same fashion as rolling hills and vast streams might inform an epic, or a gritty industrial wasteland might draw out the grimy unpleasantness of a brutal thriller. It’s a strange, foreign world and entering it throws off the rules of normal human engagement. One understands why Adrian and Madeline feel so at home there: Far from the mainstream, it’s the only place that understands their avant garde sensibility and celebrates it.

The picture functions as a primer into some of the most unanswerable questions surrounding the ways art is socially received. It does periodically come across as an overly intellectual exercise, an exploration of Aesthetic Theory more befitting of the classroom than movie screens. Still, it presents a memorable cast of characters, proves humorous in a sly, deadpan way and evokes some smart surrealistic touches in its depiction of its insular, heightened setting. Mostly, (Untitled) is worth experiencing for its willingness to grapple with ideas larger than itself, to function on a base dramatic level and as a careful consideration of the complex forces than shape an artistic legacy.

The Upside: The movie is both funny and smart; two qualities that are too often lost these days.

The Downside: It’s occasionally almost too smart, and the absurdism can be tiresome.

On the Side: It’s a rare lead role for Adam Goldberg, an excellent character actor best known for his work in Saving Private Ryan and (unfortunately) The Hebrew Hammer.