By Michael T. Dennis
Indie director Jonathan Parker puts the contemporary art scene on display in “(Untitled).” His movie follows two brothers as they fight to have their work accepted and their lives validated in an environment that's both perplexing and ruthless.
“(Untitled)” takes place in a world that will be exceedingly familiar to anyone who has strolled the galleries of lower Manhattan, but it's really meant for those who have ever been moved to ask, How is that art? The film opens with the Jacobs brothers, Adrian (Adam Goldberg) and Josh (Eion Bailey), looking blankly at one of Josh's new paintings, splashes of pastel colors and a few carefully placed dots.
The walls are filled with extremely similar paintings; each one would look right at home decorating a motel room. For Josh, this is precisely the problem as orders keep pouring in from hotel chains and hospitals, leaving him well paid but without time to cultivate serious following as a painter.
Adrian's nonplussed reaction to Josh's art is partly due to his own problems. As the founding member of an experimental music ensemble, he sees himself as the pure, angst-ridden artiste; a counterpoint to his brother, the painter of pretty pictures. Misunderstood and “ahead of his time,” Adrian's compositions feature a percussionist who crumples paper, a clarinet player who does all she can to be off key, and a piano solo where he seems to be trying to press as many keys at the same time as possible. The inability to make any money from his art forces him to moonlight as a restaurant pianist for tuxedo-clad patrons.
Even among the artistic elite, Adrian has trouble connecting. His stubborn refusal to compromise his beliefs, even in the name of politeness, makes him dismiss the rare compliments he receives. Soon even his piano gig in the restaurant is gone, when he can't resist the urge to improvise for the dinner crowd. Thankfully, Adrian has a solution in mind: three more years of struggle, then suicide.
Adrian's emergence from his self-imposed rut comes from an unlikely source: Josh's beautiful gallery owner girlfriend, Madelaine (Marley Shelton). Seeing Adrian's edgy unpopularity as a cultural commodity waiting to be tapped, she invites him to perform at her next opening. Madelaine becomes the center of a sibling rivalry, encouraging Adrian to stay true to his convictions while selling Josh's paintings out of her storage to fund her increasingly bizarre exhibitions. Ultimately, all three hit rock bottom before taking stock of life and moving on. In this part of the story “(Untitled)” reveals characters that are eccentric but still human.
The film's best quality is its depiction of New York's art world. Besides being a place for the characters to live, work, and suffer, it's also a source of humor. Adrian's stone face and Josh's straight man act as foils to the absurdity around them, from the rich collector who buys whatever is suggested to him (including commissioning a work by Adrian) to in-vogue artist Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones, as an unholy amalgamation of Robert Rauschenberg and Damien Hirst). When the brothers make their escape, it's clear they will not be missed.
“(Untitled)” takes aim at the art world, freely criticizing its follies, but this description belies what is a rather sophisticated analysis of art as it exists today. Art is simultaneously a commercial item, a spiritual enterprise, and a symbol of status and taste. Like their products, the makers and sellers of art are caught within a multifaceted identity. Madelaine fights for what she deems to be true art, elitist and inaccessible to most but emotionally and intellectually rousing for the initiated. Josh is a victim of easy success, and when he learns that he's been little more to Madelaine than a meal ticket, his conception of his place in the art world shifts dramatically.
When Adrian attends a performance by an older, established sound artist and witnesses the artist after the show as he accepts rude criticism with patience and grace, he is inspired to take his troubles in stride rather than clinging to them as dead metaphor for his value as an artist and human being. The lesson of learning to cope with problems rather than seeking to eliminate them is one that extends beyond the artists and galleries of “(Untitled)” and gives the movie a fable-like quality. Like most stories about brothers, Josh and Adrian end up being two sides of the same coin, employing different strategies to overcome similar challenges. That they both manage to see their way through is a testament to the creative spirit when it can be contained within someone whose status as an artist enhances but doesn't replace their status as a person.
Adrien Jacobs – Adam Goldberg
Madeleine Gray – Marley Shelton
Josh Jacobs – Eion Bailey
The Clarinet – Lucy Punch
Ray Barko – Vinnie Jones
Porter Canby – Zak Orth
Monroe – Ptolemy Slocum
Grant – Michael Panes
Parker Film Company and Luber Roklin Entertainment
Distributed by The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Directed by Jonathan Parker
Written by Catherine DiNapoli and Jonathan Parker
Producers, Catherine DiNapoli, Paul Jarrett, Matt Luber, Lorna Nowve, Andreas Olavarria
Original Music, David Lang
Cinematographer, Svetlana Cvetko
Editor, Keiko Deguchi
Casting, Deanna Brigidi
Production Designer, David L. Snyder
Art Director, Len X. Clayton
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