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A Modest Art World Satire

Rating 3.5 out of 5 stars.

With its egocentric artists, self-serving art dealers, clueless art collectors, and various poseurs and hangers-on, the art world — or rather the commercial side of the art world — has always been a subject ripe for satire. For his third film, (Untitled), musician-composer-turned-filmmaker Jonathan Parker (The Californians, Bartleby) takes on the New York art scene he knows well from first-hand experience.

Sometimes scathing, sometimes obvious, and ultimately underwhelming, (Untitled) is nonetheless a promising debut by a filmmaker with a keen eye for visual composition and verbal humor.

(Untitled) centers on Adrian Jacobs (Adam Goldberg), a New York musician-composer, and, at least initially, his struggles to find an audience for his relentlessly dissonant, atonal compositions (“noise” by any other definition). Even his supportive parents walk out of one sparsely attended performance.

His brother, Josh (Eion Bailey), a commercial painter, has financial success with generically abstract paintings that hang in hotel chains and corporate offices everywhere, but not the critical success he craves. Adrian meets Josh’s girlfriend, Madeleine Gray (Marley Shelton), an ambitious Chelsea-based gallery owner, at the performance.

Madeline’s artists include Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones), a boorish, egomaniacal Brit who creates aggressively ugly art from animal carcasses, and the introspective, if no less self-absorbed, Monroe (Ptolemy Slocum), who doesn’t so much create art as he does meta-art that comments on art and the meaning of art. Madeline, however, keeps her gallery running by selling Josh’s paintings, but refuses to take him seriously as an artist or let him have an art show at her gallery.

Attracted to Adrian and his uncompromising attitude toward art, Madeline commissions a new composition from him for an art show opening. She convinces Porter Canby (Zak Orth), a software inventor and billionaire, to commission Adrian’s composition in exchange for one of Barko’s sculptures. Madeline and Adrian start an affair, setting the stage for minor comedic complications as Adrian struggles with his principles, Josh pushes for more from Madeline while clueless about her relationship with Josh, and the socially dysfunctional Canby attempts to romance a woman in Adrian’s music group only identified as the Clarinet (Lucy Punch).

As art-world satire, (Untitled) starts off strong, taking aim at composers and artists who make inaccessible and incomprehensible art, all the while decrying the lack of commercial success or mainstream acceptance that they either want or want ambiguously. Art gallery owners more interested in becoming trendy tastemakers than in promoting genuinely unique, visionary art are also a target, but (Untitled eventually peters out as the romantic subplot moves into the foreground.

Whether out of a perverse desire to subvert narrative conventions or simply because he ran out of ideas, Parker wraps up the characters’ storylines and their individual fates in the most conventional, predictable, banal way possible. That aside, however, Parker shows a keen eye for visual composition and visual humor, either through production design or through letting characters move in and out of the frame, all the while subverting our expectations of what they think will happen next.

And, in Adam Goldberg — best known for his roles in the short-lived ABC series, The Unusuals, 2 Days in Paris, and earlier in his career, Saving Private Ryan — Parker has found a near-perfect actor. Adrian judges the art world and finds it wanting. He expects more from the world than the world wants to give him. He refuses to compromise his ideals or, closer to the truth, hide his mediocrity behind impossibly high ideals, but still wants to succeed commercially. And, he wants the beautiful blonde, which Parker may or may not give him.