Basquiat (Julian Schnabel)

Rating: ** (out of ****)

Yet another in a seemingly never-ending succession of biopics with no discernible point or reason for existence, hip artist Julian Schnabel's paean to dead hip artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is occasionally engaging, but traffics in too many clichés, and tosses in far too many meaningless celebrity cameos and downtown in-jokes, to rise above mere self-congratulation. Like last year's interminable Carrington, another suffering-artist tale in which the act of creation seems incidental, Basquiat substitutes trivial anecdote and "colorful" characterization for dramatic and emotional resonance, and offers virtually no insight into its protagonist's life or work. Jeffrey Wright, reportedly a brilliant actor (he played Belize in Angels in America on Broadway), is given little to work with, and turns in a maddeningly opaque performance -- his Basquiat seems perpetually distracted and/or bored, as if he, too, were waiting for the movie to locate a coherent viewpoint and get going. Without a compelling center, the film drifts from scene to scene inoffensively, and only the familiar faces compel attention. David Bowie is reasonably distracted and aloof as Warhol, though I prefer Jared Harris' interpretation in the superior I Shot Andy Warhol; Gary Oldman (as Schnabel -- is it mere coincidence that he's the most centered and immediately likable character in the film?) and Dennis Hopper (cast effectively against type) also fare well. But these pleasures are fleeting; in six months' time, I expect that I'll have difficulty recalling much of anything about Basquiat...though I suppose that Schnabel's inexplicable choice to intercut an argument between Basquiat and his (singularly generic) girlfriend with clips from Ladislaw Starewicz's remarkable 1922 stop-motion short Frogtown will stay with me. A dubious achievement, but better than nothing, I guess.