Jonathan Parker, who made an amusing update of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby,” follows it up with an uneven satire of the Manhattan art scene that nonetheless offers a fairly steady stream of chuckles, if very few belly-laughs. “(Untitled)” focuses on two ambitious brothers. One, Josh (Eion Bailey), is a painter whose generically abstract work has become a favorite in upscale hotels (and the financial foundation of the gallery of his promoter, Marley Shelton’s Madeleine Gray, who never shows the stuff but makes a boodle selling it). The other, Adrian (Adam Goldberg), is an aggressively avant-garde composer whose noisy, clattery pieces are shunned by audiences.
The plot has to do with Madeleine dumping Josh personally in favor of his brother, and keeping his work from exhibition to make space for her outrageous resident artist Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones), who specializes in taxidermy-based pieces, and the ultra-minimalist musings of geeky newcomer Monroe (Ptolemy Slocum). Simultaneously Madeleine convinces gullible software tycoon Porter (Zak Orth), who gets infatuated with Adrian’s clarinetist (Lucy Punch), to commission a piece from him to premiere at her gallery. But Josh is infuriated by her treatment, and Adrian worries about selling out.
Parker tries to walk a fine line between sharp satire and broad comedy, but doesn’t always succeed. Josh’s paintings are just a kite too bland (as is Bailey, unfortunately), and Monroe’s ludicrously vapid (though Slocum gets a lot of smiles with his turn as someone who’s either totally wacked-out or cleverly manipulative). And Adrian’s music, with its hammers and metal buckets, isn’t a much more advanced spoof than the concerto Peter Sellers played in “The World of Henry Orient”—and that was forty-five years ago. The tone softens in the last reel, too, which might suit audience expectations but seems something of a cop-out.
The performances are variable, too. Bailey is simply boring, and Goldberg’s hangdog shtick has gone around the block one too many times; and it’s difficult to tell whether Orth’s fumbling approach is artful or merely natural to him (perhaps a sign that he’s very good). On the other hand, Shelton is icily right-on as the ambitious master of her domain, Slocum gets more than you’d expect out of the oddball character of Monroe, and Jones is much better than you might expect from his previous work as the voluble Barko. Michael Panes also turns in a wickedly funny bit as Gray’s assistant, as does Svetlana Elfremova as a poison-tongued vocalist roped into Adrian’s ensemble.
As he did in “Bartleby,” Parker (working with designer David Snyder, art director Len X. Clayton and set designer Kay Lee) presents a carefully-constructed world for his characters to inhabit, especially in terms of the interior visuals, and cinematographer Svetlana Cvetko shoots them stylishly. There’s also a distinctive score by David Lang, who was presumably also responsible for Adrian’s compositions.
In fact there’s so much that’s good about “(Untitled)” that one regrets it’s not better than it is. Still, with its flaws, Parker’s is the rare picture nowadays that takes satiric aim at the pomposity of the world of high art and hits the target, even if the blows are more often than not only glancing ones.