“Boogie Woogie” doesn’t know if it’s here to satirize or indict the modern art scene, but it certainly loves to remain in the sinister gray area it creates. A comedic look at the whirlwind nature of the art world, the film is only sporadically humorous, faring better as a perceptive jab at the egos, libidos, and nitwit audacity of a subculture that’s founded in handcrafted miracles, yet prides itself on excesses of status and power.
In London, the war of art is waged on a daily basis, with gallery owners (including Danny Houston), underlings (Heather Graham), collectors (Gillian Anderson and Stellan Skarsgard), artists (Jamie Winstone), schemers (Simon McBurney), wannabes (Alan Cummings), and observers (Amanda Seyfred) out to make a name for themselves within a frighteningly competitive, self-absorbed business. On the table is a famous painting, Mondrian’s “Boogie-Woogie,” owned by a cantankerous man (Christopher Lee) with little interest in selling, while his wife (Joanna Lumley) watches helplessly as the lucrative offers begin to pile up.
A hurried ensemble piece seizing fragments of characterization over a unified plot, “Boogie Woogie” retains a breezy, casual feel from director Duncan Ward, working from a screenplay by Danny Moynihan, who adapts from his own novel. This is a tale of pure amorality, unleashing a community of corrupt individuals inside an art world that rewards betrayal, profiting from agony. The satiric atmosphere of “Boogie Woogie” is pungent, but the digs are earned, with the narrative taking a plunge in these icy, shark-infested waters to survey the backstabbing soullessness that helps to keep the movement scurrying along.
Moynihan’s script is broad, but surprisingly blunt when it comes to surveying the sexual and financial games played by the individuals involved, who are driven purely by self-interest. It’s a toxic pool of personalities, but the lashes are vivid at times, especially in the behavior of Art Spindle (Huston), a manic gallery owner fiercely protective of his success, to a point of a paranoia and inappropriate gamesmanship. Skarsgard also registers strongly as Bob, a collector with a weakness for one-upmanship and perfect breasts. Ward fills out the list of offenses with a wide range of characters gleefully screwing over anything in their way, but Art and Bob create the most convincing portrait of competition -- a cheerful, vigilant pair of unapologetic predators.
The cast is uniformly strong despite feeling around a few incomplete areas of storytelling. I especially enjoyed Anderson as Bob’s flighty spouse, finding her sense of good judgment impaired while in the presence of a young artist on the rise. Heather Graham also locates some satisfying shades to Beth, an employee of Art who’s looking to step out as her own gallery owner, sleeping her way around the scene to collect the pieces she needs to succeed.
Trying to fold a few too many corners in just 85 minutes, “Boogie Woogie” doesn’t retain the depth necessary to launch something awesomely penetrating. It’s more of a paper cut, but one that’s sufficiently nasty in a minor key, landing a few body blows where it matters the most, while successfully detailing the betrayal and schmoozing it takes to get to the top. Talent is always secondary.