Early in (Untitled), a thoughtful independent comedy about the modern art scene, a sound collagist played by Adam Goldberg, a master of tortured neuroses, arrives in a broken-down New York theater for a performance with his three-piece outfit. To his surprise, a promising scrum of people are gathered out front. Then a bus passes and whisks them all away, as if they were just some cruel mirage. Once he’s inside, a smattering of people—maybe 10, half of them family members—watches Goldberg, a saxophonist, and a percussionist make an unholy racket together, including effects like booting a bucket with a chain inside it. An old couple immediately bolts for the exit. And they’re his parents.
At first glance, the scene suggests an overly familiar take on the eye-rolling pretentiousness of contemporary art, territory well-covered by everything from Art School Confidential to the SNL sketch “Sprockets” to the Julianne Moore scenes in The Big Lebowski. And while co-writer/director Jonathan Parker takes plenty of shots at empty-headed artistes and the culture that supports them, he’s gratifyingly serious about the struggle of creating art in a compromised world where everything’s been done. Goldberg’s abstract compositions may well be tin-eared twaddle, but he isn’t the fraud he appears to be. He wants to find an authentic way to express himself—and as a classically trained pianist, it’s not like he can’t play—but he can’t manage it.
(Untitled) introduces two more smartly conceived characters (and a love triangle)—Goldberg’s brother Eion Bailey, a painter whose pleasing-but-meaningless abstract canvases are perfect for hotels and office buildings, and Marley Shelton, a sexy gallery owner who bankrolls her non-commercial exhibits by selling Bailey’s work from the back room. Already sibling rivals in art, Goldberg and Bailey fight for Shelton’s affections while relying on her for artistic legitimacy and financial viability.
Shelton’s radiant performance as the brothers’ elusive object of desire helps rescue (Untitled) from an occasional listlessness that comes as a consequence of Parker’s nuanced, gentle jabs at the art world. Both a shrewd pragmatist and a true believer, her character tries to square her excitement over art’s suspect innovations with the commercial core of her business. At worst, the film’s refusal to either completely mock or embrace the contemporary scene gives it a neither-here-nor-there quality that its flat stylistics doesn’t alleviate. But the three main characters aren’t cardboard-cutout poseurs, and for that alone, (Untitled) stands apart.