With modern composers shaking chains and screaming for polite applause as strips of foam rubber stapled to the walls are sold to the highest bidder, the conceptual art world is an easy source of chuckles. But most comedies merely use galleries as an upscale backdrop to be admired or a chance to call out self-serious charlatans. In (Untitled), director/co-writer Jonathan Parker hits a tone neither aspirational nor dismissive. Aware of the art world's superficial absurdity and the educated intentions that underlie it, Parker has love for both.
Eion Bailey and Adam Goldberg play earnest brothers at opposite ends of the success spectrum, respectively serving inoffensive watercolors to hotels and grating musique concrète to a handful of unmoved critics. Tensions flare when Bailey's art dealer -- living off his commissions but saving her gallery space for the truly esoteric -- is turned on by Goldberg's unbending integrity. Surrounding the triangle is an equally prickly coterie of artists, musicians, dealers, and buyers, who fill the air with colorful appraisals of the outlandish work around them. These endless ruminations are meant to seduce, undercut, con, or impress those around them, depending on the dynamic of the moment. It's not like modern art can speak for itself.
While Goldberg's frustrated idealist is the ostensible lead, Parker is happy to follow supporting characters on tangents, from the sneering commiseration of critics (Luna's Dean Wareham and underground theater's David Cale) after a disappointing show to a hapless dot-com millionaire (Stella pal Zak Orth) who loses his date in the depths of his apartment, a cluttered monument to art-as-investment. The film's visual verity is a tribute to production designer David L. Snyder, who previously worked on Blade Runner and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Veteran sound designer Richard Beggs -- previously employed by two generations of Coppolas -- rewards the attenuation to ambiance inspired by Goldberg's compositions (actually written by Pulitizer Prize winner David Lang), turning Chelsea into a constant cacophony. When was the last time you noticed what a comedy sounded like?
Though only Vinnie Jones, woefully miscast as an avant-garde taxidermist, ever seems truly lost, the film becomes less assured as it ambles to a climax, abruptly ending in a wanton pile of ironies (a scene of Goldberg finally writing a pretty ballad is straight out of Purple Rain, though we thankfully never see its performance). But after visiting this playland of self-deluded dreamers and peddlers, we can't blame Parker for not knowing how to leave.