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Dir. Jonathan Parker (The Samuel Goldwyn Company) -- 2.5 STARS

By Clio C. Smurro, Contributing Writer

In the opening scene of “(Untitled),” Josh Jacobs (Eion Bailey) questions his failed musician brother, Aaron (Adam Goldberg), about when he’ll finally surrender his dream of becoming a famous composer. “I’ll give it three more years,” the brooding pianist replies, “and if I haven’t made it by then—”

“—You’ll get a job?” his brother offers hopefully.

“No,” the furrow-browed musician snaps impatiently. “I’ll kill myself.”

This exchange, though brief, aptly summarizes the overall experience of watching this film. It begins with high hopes for artistry and authority, makes plodding steps toward achieving these goals, and remains largely unsuccessful. The audience patiently grants the film time to develop, but instead of maturing, the plot slowly abandons its attempts at greatness and withers. The film succeeds in its early attempts to satirize the modern art world, but soon grows convoluted and unnecessarily dark, much like 2006’s indie house failure “Art School Confidential.”

The film’s premise is quite ordinary. Aaron, a quirky, experimental musician, falls for Madeleine (Marley Shelton), a trendy Chelsea gallerist, and the two struggle through the difficulties of art and love. The morose hipster boyfriend is a comfortable role for Goldberg, who portrayed a similar character in 2007’s “Two Days in Paris.”

In this role, Goldberg draws us fully into the mind of a tormented musician. His character is acutely aware of all sounds and overly sensitive to any kind of distraction which occurs during his performances. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, a woman at Goldberg’s concert lightly fans herself with her program, sending Aaron into a spiraling frenzy. Ripping a huge American flag from the back of the stage, he whips it back and forth in the concertgoer’s shocked face. “This is what I hear when you do that!” he shouts over the din created by his waving flag of fury. These moments go beyond merely depicting an artist’s psychological turmoil, opting instead to situate the viewer directly within the artist’s sensory perceptions. Such moments are marred, however, by Goldberg’s unchanging facial expression: a swarthy, angry scowl of painful misunderstanding. Too often, he is perfectly content to let his eyebrows do the acting for him.

The film benefits from a few genuinely thought-provoking discussions of modern art. One scene raises the question of artists who challenge current artistic conventions but remain unpopular—are they true visionaries, or do they simply lack creative talent? At a swanky dinner party early in the film, one guest whispers to another that an under-appreciated artist lacks a following because he is “ahead of his time.” Looking skeptical, the other guest quietly replies, “But what if time never catches up?” These moments, if somewhat exceedingly self-aware, are at least delivered in a manner that seems understated and reflective.

The dialogue becomes grating, however, when the film’s characters stop following normal conversation patterns, and instead begin to communicate with speeches that sound like contrived publicity blurbs for art shows. “Your work pushes the boundaries of modern thought, thrusting past the limitations of human emotion and cognition to create the ultimate expression of human consciousness,” Madeleine enthuses to an artist during a show. These kinds of inflated, preposterous mini-monologues quickly grow tiresome, and instead of humorously mocking the bourgeoisie art world, they come across as simply an irksome staple of it.

The film’s second half suffers from a plethora of increasingly distracting elements. Chief among these is its score, which alternates between vaguely eerie and uncomfortably alarming. A host of strange, unnatural sounds accompany moments of onscreen tension, at times recalling the abrasive and bizarre soundtrack of a Paul Thomas Anderson movie but without Anderson’s artistic discretion. The film’s surprising turn toward a dark and haunting ending, as typified by a grotesque and unexpected murder scene, also proves jarring and unnecessary. If this film were an artistic hopeful, it would probably do well to accept its limited talents, give up its dream, and get a real occupation.

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