Early on in (Untitled), Adrian Jacobs (Adam Goldberg), a pretentious but nebbish artist, insults someone’s taste by mumbling, “Some feelings are so personal that it’s best to keep them to yourself.” That snide credo identifies the film, a petulant putdown of the inanities of selling, promoting, and appreciating modern art, as a product of director Jonathan Parker, a poor man’s Todd Solondz. Parker, whose Bartleby was an effectively misanthropic adaptation of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, regurgitates a diluted version of Solondz’s schtick, all condescension and none of the moral probing.
Parker reduces the art world to the insipid backbiting and conniving of malign thugs that enthusiastically bat around grandiose, self-serving endorsements like, “When you collect it, you’re not just writing a check. You’re writing the history of Western civilization.” Judging (Untitled) based on meager representative merits like that one is thus not a question of whether or not it’s art, a simplistic notion with which Parker and co-writer Catherine DiNapoli endlessly flirt. It’s art all right, but that doesn’t make it good.
Adrian is an “atonal musician,” meaning that he experiments with noises like a humorless version of a budding Frank Zappa. Because he uses buckets, chains, and shrieking for his art, Adrian is not very popular or widely renowned. His brother Josh (Eion Bailey), however, is a commercially successful painter whose art is only appreciated by hotel chains and a plump, bourgeois art enthusiast that harbors dreams of opening her own art gallery in Nantucket. Naturally, the two end up competing over Josh’s girlfriend Madeline (Marley Shelton), a savvy but heartless gallery owner who lands Adrian his first commission and shortly winds up in the sack with him.
Madeline embodies the worst excesses of the art world according to (Untitled). With her non-prescription black-rimmed glasses and her tight leather pant-skirt, she’s an oversexed, heartless grad-school nightmare. She preys on know-nothing patrons of the arts and talentless avant garde schmucks indiscriminately, including a British guy that poses already taxidermied animals (Vinnie Jones) and an introverted Tom Green lookalike (Ptolemy Slocum) who just puts labels on existing objects. These people can’t even speak coherently, let alone explain their respective wonky aesthetics. In Parker’s eyes, that makes them the mindless creations of Madeline, who’s actively scamming her small group of followers into thinking they’re actually the next big thing. And yet, if the artists’ personalities hadn’t been used to dismiss their art and I had just been allowed to see their work on its own terms, I’d probably be able to enjoy them in some small way. But I guess that’s because, as the film’s tagline brays, “Everyone’s got an opinion.”
(Untitled) has such a paucity of compelling emotions that when it comes time for it to get serious and show us that not everybody that creates or exhibits “edgy” art is a money-grubbing sellout, it instead serves up platitudes. Adrian asks an accomplished 90-year-old composer, after a dullard of a critic assaults him, how he responds to such know-nothing hacks. The codger coolly replies that his art is only as important as the satisfaction it gives him. And poof, Adrian takes that to heart and stops playing with his buckets and starts plonking on his piano (but sincerely this time!). If only Parker had kept that nugget of wisdom to himself.