Movie Review: “Showing Up” in the Emperor’s New Clothes

“I don’t know much about art,” the old joke goes. “But I know what I like.”

That settles in for a pleasant, gloriously inconsequential run around the cinematic block with the latest from Kelly Reichardt. In “Showing Up,” the “First Cow” director/co-writer returns to her obscurant past (“Wendy and Lucy”) for an odd and esoteric take on art, the artist’s eye and the genteel poverty of the lifestyle set in the ever-so-low-stakes world of a Portlandia bubble of artists, art families and the art school that nurtures it.

Not a whole helluva lot happens in 108 minutes. Reichardt kind of dares you to “get” it, and dares you not to like it. But anybody familiar with this world and its archetypes might find pleasure in what Reichardt chose to focus on and lightly poke in the ribs here.

Michelle Williams rejoins her “Wendy and Lucy” director to play Lizzy, a sculptress working in clay and exasperated by the distractions of her landlady and fellow artist (Hong Chau of “The Whale”). Lizzy hasn’t had hot water in weeks. Lizzy has “a lot of work.” She has “an opening” coming up.

And so does the equally self-involved Jo, who brushes off every entreaty about the damned hot water heater with a little humbragging and a bit of flattery. Her “show” opens first. She works in wall-hangings of a dream catcher/mobile variety. But Jo can tell that every new “piece” Lizzy is prepping for the kiln is “a-MAZING.”

André Benjamin, once known for singing “Hey Ya” with OutKast, most recently seen in TV’s “Dispatches from Elsewhere,” has the kiln where all the potters (James LeGros) and their students and sculptors like Lizzy have their newly-glazed art baked to completion.

Maryann Plunkett plays Jean, who runs OSAC, the Oregon School of Art and Culture, and Lizzy’s boss. And when Lizzy wonders if her artist brother Sean will show up for her opening, we find out Jean is also Lizzy’s mom.

One of the characteristics of monocultures like this is the self-sustaining bubble that they become. Artists begat artists. Lizzy’s divorced dad (Judd Hirsch) was a potter, retired and playing house host to random strangers (Amanda Plummer included) like the unrepetent hippy he and everyone here pretty much is.

It’s a world where people obsess over gallery fliers — their writing, design and who gets “credit” for them — and “invitations,” where the gossip is of who is flattering whose work. Lizzy and Jo work in different media, but they are unmistakably rivals, even if Jo won’t acknowledge it and thinks nothing of blowing off Lizzy’s needs and sapping her concentration in this imaginary deadline-pressure cooker.

“But…I have so much WORK.”

“Showing Up” passes on an appreciation of The Artist’s Eye, that considered gaze that artists give to each other’s work, sizing up effort, talent, message and intent in a few seconds. Whatever they may think of what you’re doing, being supportive and encouraging to your face is what matters.

Reichardt immerses us in a world of “movement” classes, nude life drawing classes, fabric workshops with eager students (overwhelmingly white) working at looms and “openings” that begin with the art, progress to “installation” and climax with a circle jerk of other artists eating little cubes of cheese and drinking white wine as they compliment and probably backsnipe when you’re out of earshot.

Dramatically, Reichardt regresses from the more consequential, clever and incident-packed period piece “First Cow” with an overly droll movie that internalizes much and plainly not much that’s important to anyone other than the artist doing the internalizing.

The pigeon is a comic device for instigating conflict, but it barely does. More promising is Lizzy’s elusive brother Sean (John Magara), a morose recluse whose burst of creativity entails digging artistic holes in his backyard.

“Art is the Earth talking!”

But all of the comic possibilities here — feuding divorced parents, plainly disturbed but labeled “brilliant” brother, the Lizzy/Jo rivalry (which includes a man) and the damned pigeon, are introduced and robbed of their potential by a defiant filmmaker hellbent on defying and suppressing expectations.

“Showing Up” is amiable, pointilistically-observed minutia in which the minutia’s the point. It’s not for everyone, even among those who know art, and know “what I like.”

Rating: R (Brief Graphic Nudity)

Cast: Michelle Williams, Hong Chau, Maryann Plunkett, Andre Benjamin, John Magaro, James LeGros, Amanda Plummer and Judd Hirsch

Credits: Directed by Kelly Reichardt, scripted by Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:48


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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