Hate mail for the hoity-toity art world, Boogie Woogie demonstrates the same mercy to its milieu that a flesh-eater might show a fresh carcass. Cannibals certainly abound in Duncan Ward’s snapshot of London’s ritzy art scene, in which gallery dealers and directors, established and would-be artists, and wealthy collectors carry out their private and professional lives with ambitious ruthlessness. From dealer extraordinaire Art Spindle (Danny Huston) and his regular clients Bob (Stellan Skarsgård) and Jean (Gillian Anderson), to Art’s right-hand woman Beth (Heather Graham) and her lothario boyfriend Jo (Jack Huston), everyone wheels and deals from a self-interested position, whether in bed, the office, or the showroom.
Save for Allan Cummings’s pitiful Dewey, who’s callously screwed over by up-and-comer Elaine (Jaime Winstone), director Ward (working from Danny Moynihan’s adaptation of his novel) casts his characters as uniformly awful, all of them treating art, love, marriage, and sex as arenas for buying, selling, and scheming. Elaine’s video self-portrait project is merely the bluntest of the film’s various examples of its players’ crass exploitation of themselves and others in service of their financial, amorous and/or careerist ends, with Christopher Lee’s infirm collector—who refuses to sell his prized Boogie Woogie painting—the lone figure unwilling to accept art as merely a commoditized means to monetary gain.
Despite its palpable satiric scorn, Boogie Woogie lacks a much-needed, consistent touch of drollness, as the story’s raft of covert deals and infidelity often elicit less disgusted humor than simply revulsion. And a subplot involving Art’s assistant Paige (Amanda Seyfried) discovering, during surgery, that she has an undeveloped twin sibling inside her body proves a graceless way of emphasizing the London scene’s devour-or-be-devoured ethos. As Art and Bob surreptitiously bid against each other for Boogie Woogie and various me-firsters screw around behind their lovers’ backs, Ward lays bare a panorama of craven incestuousness devoid of feeling, typified by Jean telling Bob that she wants a divorce and Bob responding with a disinterested “If that’s what you want” before revealing that he doesn’t even know the correct year they met.
Strong turns from Anderson (pitifully selfish) and Skarsgård (creepily salacious and miserable) help overshadow clumsy plotting that reduces certain characters to thematic devices, though it’s Graham who most surprises, especially during a romantic encounter in which her lovey-dovey warmth melts away in an under-the-sheets moment to reveal her harsh, calculating true nature. Less amusing than it should have been, Boogie Woogie nonetheless employs a chilly, detached point of view in harmony with its aloof setting, an environment of cordial appearances masking single-minded self-preservation instincts that’s epitomized by Huston’s staccato, every-“ha!”-pronounced phony laughter.