Film Review: My Art

Clever re-imaginings of scenes from old Hollywood movies enliven this offbeat dramedy about a middle-aged female artist trying to jump-start her art-making career.
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A droll dramedy written and deftly directed by experimental photographic artist Laurie Simmons, making her narrative filmmaking debut, My Art reflects the blurring of fact and fantasy that has overtaken so many aspects of our contemporary cultural climate. While the literary world is flooded with fictionalized memoirs that confusingly mix reality and imagined events, on the political scene “alternative facts” and accusations of “fake news” have confounded the practice of journalistic reporting. And the Internet continues to spawn myriad tools seducing individuals to invent their own “selves” through fabricated images, manipulative text and undercover dialoguing.

With its story of a middle-aged woman artist, Ellie, reigniting her creative practice by exploring a new medium—and the director’s choice to play the role of Ellie herself—Simmons’ trendy film muddies the boundaries between drama and autobiography. With the summer off from her art-school teaching job, Ellie accepts an offer to spend her break at a celebrity friend’s upstate New York country house, which is equipped with a studio space where Ellie devotes herself to making new artwork. The actors who play Ellie’s New York City friends and the humorous array of “locals” she meets upstate are all real-life friends or acquaintances of Simmons, and every one of her immediate family members, including her dog, makes an appearance in the film. Writer-actor Lena Dunham, Simmons’ daughter, appears in a cameo role as a former student of Ellie’s who has achieved art-world success (which Ellie hasn’t) at a young age. The scene between the two of them, in which Ellie has to listen to Dunham’s character bemoan the “difficulties” of being a successful artist, is painfully amusing.

But the most engaging examples of the film’s meshing of real and imaginary worlds lie in the video artwork Ellie creates and performs in during her rustic sojourn. As fellow performers, she enlists the voluntary services of John (John Rothman), the thrice-divorced, on-the-prowl stepdad of one of her students, and the two out-of-work actors employed as the property’s gardeners, Frank (Robert Clohessy, an actor who actually lives in the town where the movie was filmed) and Tom (Josh Safdie). Ellie has the performers dress up and substitute themselves for famous actors in iconic roles to recreate scenes from beloved Hollywood films. Old movie buffs will surely delight in these re-imaginings of great performances from films ranging from Some Like It Hot toJules and Jim, The Misfits and A Clockwork Orange. In cleverly evolving fantasy sequences, we see how Ellie draws inspiration for these video artworks from occurrences in her performers’ everyday lives that relate in some meaningful way to the scenes in which she ultimately casts them in her videos.

Despite the interesting, multi-layered commentary on artistic and personal identity, the well-observed characters and their skilled portrayals are what really make this film entertaining. The brusque, self-absorbed Ellie is decidedly off-putting, particularly in her defensive unwillingness to allow anyone but herself to talk about or make suggestions concerning her artwork—the value of which is highly questionable. Nonetheless, she provides a steady, relatable presence, against which the comic qualities of her oddball associates effectively resonate. Clohessy manages to make the recently widowed, pain-in-the-ass Frank as lovable as he is intrusive, while Safdie’s smartly understated acting gives a wide berth to Parker Posey’s riotous performance as his emasculating wife. Yet Rothman, as perhaps the film’s most annoying character, generates the biggest belly laughs, both “off-screen” as a drunken flirt and “on-screen” as an ace mimic in Ellie’s silly, old-movie art escapades.

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