‘Boogie Woogie’: You Call This Art?

Boogie Woogie was adapted by Danny Moynihan from his novel about the pretentious New York art scene, and the story has been moved to London for reasons nobody can fathom. The result is not a scalding satire but a tepid spoof that only occasionally evokes a reluctant smile. Freshman director Duncan Ward has worked in the London art world and is married to powerful British curator Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst. The artist Damian Hirst plays the film’s über-curator, and many of the paintings on the walls by famous artists such as Bruce Nauman, Gavin Turk and the Chapmans are from his personal collection. With that kind of informed input, it is amazing that the filmmakers failed to capture the nuances or craft a more brutal, incisive exposé of the art milieu. Instead, the film’s writing and direction are little more than soap-opera caliber; the excellent cast is cast adrift without guidance; the camera work is pedestrian; and the film looks like it was edited with the kind of chain saw used by tree surgeons.

Obviously inspired by the overpopulated theme films of Robert Altman, which explore such absurdist genres as country music (Nashville), Hollywood (The Player) and Paris fashion shows (Ready to Wear), Boogie Woogie is more confusing than revealing. A fashionable but ruthless art dealer named Art Spindle (Danny Huston) believes “art should not be allowed to stagnate” and designates himself to the task of relieving collectors of their priceless acquisitions for resale value. The underlying motto of the film is “There is a price for everything.” Spindle has his heart set on buying Mondrian’s abstract canvas “Boogie Woogie,” owned by a sick old German tycoon on feeding tubes and oxygen (Christopher Lee, his Hammer monster epics long behind him), who purchased it for a bargain sum 50 years earlier from Mondrian himself. He wants to hold on to his masterpiece, but his younger, flashier wife (the marvelous Joanna Lumley) longs to get rid of it in order to pay off their debts, inflating the price by courting rival bidders, including the wealthy collector Bob Maclestone (Stellan Skarsgard), whose mistress is Art Spindle’s own gallery director, Beth Freemantle (Heather Graham), who betrays him by sleeping with Jo Richards (Jack Huston), a rakish young painter she’s promoting who is working on a new show exploring the boundaries of peripheral vision while snorting cocaine.

When Bob and Jo both move on to Spindle’s new secretary, Paige (Amanda Seyfried), Bob’s wife, Jean (Gillian Anderson, who has come a long way as a beguiling actress since The X-Files), takes on struggling artist Jo, and Beth explores lesbian love with her latest discovery, a wild video conceptualist named Elaine (popular British newcomer Jaime Winstone), who is working on a pornographic video self-portrait replete with blatant girl-girl lovemaking, which she tries to convince Beth to exhibit. “Wow! So real! I think it’s really revealing. It’s very daring!” says Beth, so turned on by close-ups of nipples, tongues and vaginas that she happily becomes a willing addition to the cast of Claire’s video diary.

When Bob and Jean divorce, creating a scandal that rocks the art world, her lawyer (Charlotte Rampling) advises her, “Art is exceeding property value two to one.” Fired by Spindle, Beth opens her own gallery, financed by her ex-lover Bob, to get even. Jo loses his show because he cheats on Beth, and Claire gets her own show as a reward for teaching her about the magic of Lesbos. The show, both an outrage and a smash, is called “In-Side-Out-Side-In.” There’s a joke here somewhere, but I’m too baffled and exhausted to find it.

Roller-blading in and out of the traffic are Art Spindle’s full-frontally-naked boyfriends and a gay dog walker named Dewey (Alan Cumming), who wants to curate a show on “deviant mythology” but creates, instead, his own greatest art triumph by throwing himself from the top of a building into a parked car. The object is to present a roundelay of art world clichés, including cheats, swindlers, thieves, liars, sexual predators, amoral sellers, crooked buyers, rich dilettantes, lunatic critics and poodles named Picasso and Matisse. The dialogue is so wooden that you long for Robert Altman’s penchant for encouraging improvisation. The art scene depicted here is never amusing and rarely clever enough to sustain interest, but a magnet for the most pretentious people in London—and that’s really saying something. This is a world where divorce settlements are determined by who gets the Hockney in the hall and who gets the Mapplethorpes on the landing, and two people trace their wedding to the year of Andy Warhol’s funeral. Oh, yes. Something ghastly happens to the Mondrian.

Boogie Woogie needs more art and less arithmetic.

rreed@observer.com

Running time: 94 minutes
Written by: Danny Moynihan
Directed by: Duncan Ward
Starring: Gillian Anderson, Christopher Lee, Amanda Seyfried, Charlotte Rampling, Jaime Winstone, Danny Huston, Stellan Skarsgard

‘Boogie Woogie’: You Call This Art?