It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad Art World

04/21/2010 1:30 PM |

Boogie Woogie
Directed by Duncan Ward

Pointing and laughing at the art world doesn't take much critical thinking or creative writing. As (Untitled) demonstrated last year, even when characters are flatter than a Suprematist composition and narrative arcs as predictable as a late Dali dreamscape, if nothing else works just have a character walk into an inappropriately placed Donald Judd and there you go: laughs! Thankfully, Boogie Woogie mostly avoids such pandering, condescending slapstick, fleshing out some real people amidst its contemporary art industry characters and saying something actually quite resonant about how we attach value to works of art.

Though the Danny Moynihan novel on which it's based took place in New York, and the major players in his London-set adaptation are American expressionists, this razor-sharp art world farce's best moments are painted with the same briskly agile brushstrokes that make Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward's most biting aristocratic satires so bubbly. And the occasional daub of Damien Hirst cruelty. Though that shark-embalmer never makes a cameo, he curated the formidable collection of Modern and contemporary art that appears throughout, and his glossy, conceptual horrors are the butt of several jokes. When the compulsive collector Bob Maccelstone (Stellan Skarsgård) sets down a steel display case featuring the corpse of gallery director Paige's (Amanda Seyfried) conjoined twin, he boasts proudly: "I had Damien make a piece of it—isn't it great?" Moynihan and director Duncan Ward definitely have their art world bonafides in order, but when socialite satire subsides, their attempts at domestic drama aren't so artful. Like another recent social milieu-specific British comedy, In The Loop, the pleasure here comes from the voyeurism of looking in on the unfamiliar day-to-day machinations of an arena that most of us only know from the outside.

It's fitting, then, that the emerging, Dash Snow-esque art star at the center of Boogie Woogie's secondary plot, Elaine (Jaime Winstone), is constantly trying to do the same in her video diaries: expose the raw nerves that are normally shielded by contemporary art and life. This shaky narrative strand's lesbian new media artist finds her foil in the main characters' pursuit of an old white man's masterpiece—it's Modern art vs. contemporary art reduced to its shortest shorthand signifiers. Teams of collectors and gallerists, all of whom are literally and/or figuratively in bed with one another, vie for the first work from Piet Mondrian's titular series of abstract yellow-on-white canvases, which cranky old blue-blood Alfred Rhinegold (Christopher Lee) won't sell even as he careens towards deathbed bankruptcy.

The top contender, a powerful dealer whose name is seriously Art Spindle (Danny Huston, laughing inimitably throughout), sustains a bidding war on behalf of his best client Bob (Skarsgård), who in the meantime has stolen away Art's gallery director Beth (Heather Graham) and financed her new space, being just obvious enough about it to push his estranged wife Jean Maccelstone (Gillian Anderson, especially excellent at her most delirious) to demand a divorce. Extraneous subplots involve the hack artist boy toy Joe (Jack Huston, Danny's nephew) trying to sleep his way in the gallery door; Art's replacement director Paige (Seyfried), who mostly serves as eye candy for the leering men; Alfred Rhinegold's scheming wife Alfreda (Joanna Lumley) and butler (Simon McBurney); and the pathetic dog-walker and would-be curator Dewey (Alan Cumming), a disposable friend to both Jean and Elaine.

The big ensemble cast and crisscrossing romances repeatedly cause Boogie Woogie to veer from swift satire into practically Gothic melodrama, which is most successful in the pitted battle between the divorcing Maccelstones. As both try to inflict the maximum degree of pain upon the other, fighting over homes, heirlooms, dogs (diminutive poodles named Picasso and Matisse, of course) and their stunning collection, Bob makes a devastating decision that articulates the film's most astute point about art: he sells all of it. "She'll still get the money," a commission-hungry Art warns him. "Yeah," Bob answers, "but she won't get the art." It's almost a throwaway punch line, yet it makes clear the undercurrent of empathy that distinguishes such effective satire from unfeeling misanthropy—Christopher Guest is another expert at this type of loving mockery. Art, no matter how over-valued, greedily coveted or hackneyed, becomes invaluable as we develop relationships with it. Though Boogie Woogie takes a circuitous route to arrive at this nugget of wisdom, it's dotted with very funny and aesthetically pleasing detours.

Opens April 23 at IFC