'High Art' has its ups, but too many downs

June 26, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Imagine "A Star Is Born" set in New York's downtown art world, with heroin addiction replacing alcoholism, and you get a pretty clear idea of "High Art," the feature film debut of writer-director Lisa Cholodenko.

Starring Radha Mitchell as a young, ambitious magazine editor and Ally Sheedy as the world-weary photographer who becomes her mentor -- and, eventually, much more -- "High Art" has a knowing take on the particular sub-strata it documents, and it marks a startling return to the screen by Sheedy, who should finally shed any lasting effects of her association with the teen comedies of John Hughes. Alarmingly gaunt, her severity buoyed by just the slightest hint of mordant humor, Sheedy is utterly convincing as a woman wise -- and damaged -- beyond her years.

Still, even Sheedy's extraordinary turn as an artist rethinking her rejection of success isn't enough to raise "High Art" above the bar of a mannered, indulgent and ultimately tiresome curiosity. Once the camera finds the party -- where heroin addicts sniff, smoke and stammer the night away -- the movie goes on the nod, never fully recovering its equilibrium. Say this much for "High Art," though, it certainly shows drug use for the crashing bore that it is.

Mitchell plays Syd, who has just been promoted at a tony downtown art mag. One providential evening, Syd meets her upstairs neighbor, Lucy -- hostess of the aforementioned junkies and, by the way, a pretty good photographer. Syd decides to champion Lucy's work at the magazine; imagine her surprise when it turns out she's taken a reclusive art star under her wing. Lucy agrees to make a comeback, with Syd editing the pictures. Eventually, the two become lovers.

The outcome is inevitable (see "A Star Is Born" reference), and Cholodenko dwells too moodily on the hip and self-destructive underworld her characters inhabit. But "High Art" has its merits. Like Julian Schnabel's "Basquiat," it explores, too briefly, the interior life of an artist torn between ambition and the fears that make her work vital. And Patricia Clarkson delivers a fine performance as Lucy's addled girlfriend, an East Village Marlene Dietrich who keeps falling asleep in her soup.

An added bonus is David Thornton as Syd's boss. Recently seen as the club owner in "The Last Days of Disco," Thornton takes hip superciliousness to its ponytailed extreme, and the effect is never short of spot-on.

'High Art'

Starring Ally Sheedy, Radha Mitchell, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Sage

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko

Released by October Films

Running time: 101 minutes

Rated R (strong sexuality, pervasive drug use, language)

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 6/26/98

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