Have you ever gone to a modern-art showing and felt like the dumbest person in the room? Those who nod appreciatively at what’s essentially junk are called out as poseurs in (Untitled), writer-director Jonathan Parker’s very funny and on-the-nose takedown of artsy pretension.
Interestingly, though, the character who ends up most sympathetic starts out as the most infuriating. Adrien (Adam Goldberg, born for the role) is a New York composer whose work can be called avant-garde at best and insufferable at worst. Harmony—which Adrien damns as “a capitalist plot to sell pianos”—is absent in his music; instead there is atonality, bucket-kicking, paper-crumpling, and, frequently, wailing, the last provided by his good-natured clarinetist (Lucy Punch, whose character is called only “the Clarinet”). His performances are sparsely attended, and even those who sit though them have no qualms about trashing his work: One pair tells him a show was “40 minutes of pure tedium” and that his music is “emotionally bankrupt with no relation to the way human beings make sense of sound.”
One person gets Adrien, however, and that’s his brother’s girlfriend, Madeleine (Marley Shelton). Adrien immediately dislikes her because her noisy clothes distract him during a concert. But afterward, Madeleine dissects his compositions and confesses a deep reaction to them. She owns a gallery in Chelsea in which she displays nonsense. (One artist’s work is centered on taxidermy, with pieces such as a rooster stuck in a dartboard and a lamb that fell off a bicycle. Her interpretation: “His narratives are so powerful.”) But to keep money coming in, she sells the paintings of Adrien’s brother, Josh (Eion Bailey), mostly to hotel chains. Such commercial appeal is gauche, of course, so she stores Josh’s work in the office. He’s also not going to win Madeleine’s heart. Adrien, though, is another story.
(Untitled) was co-written by frequent Parker collaborator Catherine DiNapoli and is less about romantic connections than about the ludicrousness of artists and collectors who affix deep meaning to works such as a pushpin stuck in a wall or blankness itself (herein titled “Wall Surrounding Space”). Madeleine, who, it becomes increasingly clear, is full of shit, defends the works she champions as suffering from “the van Gogh syndrome,” i.e. geniuses who were dismissed until well after their deaths. And though she has a point—to a point—Josh offers a more apt critique: “When did beauty become so fucking ugly?” Adrien, meanwhile, just wants to be creative and get people’s attention, as he entertainingly does during his day job, playing piano at a restaurant that’s filled with diners gabbing on their cells.
The script itself is clever but the performances here sell it, particularly those of Vinnie Jones and Ptolemy Slocum, who have minor roles as artists, Zak Orth as a faux-intelligentsia collector, and Punch, whose expressions are a delicious balance between feigned understanding and bafflement when included in discussions about art. Shelton is perfectly sophisticated and believably defensive, and Goldberg uses his sarcasm and scowl to wonderful effect. (Untitled) offers a strong yet witty statement about art and those who pursue it. But all you really need to know is this: If you’ve ever busted out laughing at works such as, oh, child mannequins with penises growing out of their heads, you’ll find plenty to entertain you here.