Sunday, February 06, 2011

Movie Log: Boogie Woogie

A novel is not a movie; I wish people would realize that. A novel is far longer than a movie, and a novel with any ambition whatsoever is more complex than any movie can hope to cram into two or three hours. But, still, filmmakers keep trying to shove ten pounds of novel plot into a five-pound movie bag.

Boogie Woogie
is one such example; it's based on a novel by Danny Moynihan -- which I haven't read, but which I have to assume is slightly more coherent and clear than the resulting film -- and there are what seem to be entire plots that take place in between a sequence of four short, thirty-second scenes that we see. Moynihan wrote the screenplay for the movie, so he has to share some of the blame -- perhaps he should have killed a few more of his darlings, to give the rest more space to breathe -- but the movie isn't so much overstuffed as it is underexplained.

The movie is set in the London art world, which is the snakepit of hidden venom, bed-hopping, naked ambition, and greed that we all assumed it was. The cast is large, and mostly well-known:
  • Danny Huston is art-gallery owner Art
  • Heather Graham is his trusted right-hand (for now), Beth
  • Jack Huston is Jo, Beth's moderately-successful artist boyfriend
  • Stellan Skarsgard is one-half of a rich couple that buys a lot of art, Bob
  • Gillian Anderson is Bob's wife, Jean, who is more interested in artists than art
  • Alan Cumming is Dewey, a hanger-on desperately trying to become a curator or agent or something
  • Jaime Winstone is Elaine, the young video artist Dewey "discovered" and has been introducing around
  • Christopher Lee is Alfred, an old man who bought the title painting from Mondrian fifty years ago for a pittance
  • Joanna Lumley is Alfreda, who is either Alfred's daughter or wife -- the movie never makes this clear, and, in fact, I don't remember knowing either of their names during the movie -- who would dearly love to sell the Mondrian to raise some cash
  • and Amanda Seyfried is Paige, the dewey-eyed new assistant at Art's gallery, who wears exceptionally short skirts.
(Charlotte Rampling has a small role, as do several other actors -- it's stuffed with characters like a novel, and the movie doesn't know how to move them all around or make their machinations clear.)

Alfred and Alfreda are mostly separate from the rest, but the others mingle in various permutations -- often with the hopes, fulfilled or not, of becoming frisky -- for a breezy hour and a half. Beth strikes out on her own, starting a new gallery backed by Bob and featuring an opening exhibition of Elaine's work. Jo tries to sleep with Paige, Bob tries to sleep with Paige, Art tries to sleep with Paige, Jean tries to sleep with Jo, Elaine tries to sleep with Beth, and I'm probably missing several more -- Bob and Jo and Elaine pretty much try to sleep with all of the women, and Jean with all of the men, and all of them are pretty successful. There are several break-ups of various types: romantic, professional, friendly.

Supposedly, the central spine is the question of whether Alfred will sell the Mondrian, but Alfred's scenes are all solo pieces -- even when Alfreda or another character is there -- and all he ever says is that he won't sell. So there's no real center to Boogie Woogie; it wanders and sprawls and stretches without quite being clear about where it is. The whole thing is pleasant, and never dull, particularly if you are interested in seeing Graham's and Winstone's breasts, or Seyfried's underwear. (Or Anderson dragging someone into a public bathroom for a quickie.) But it never uses all of that sex to say anything substantial about the art world, or develops a real point of view and vision.

It also doesn't have a central character, or characters -- Graham's Beth comes closest, but Boogie Woogie wants to be about this entire world without focusing on anyone in that world. Along the way, it neither makes their stories separate nor melds them all into one story, but instead just presents a sequence of scenes that make sense, but don't lead to anything. It's a movie about art that ends up essentially artless, which is its largest failure.

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