Michelle Williams plays a sculptor whose hot water heater has irritatingly busted in the languid “Showing Up.” That’s about it, plot-wise. Talk about nobody showing up.
Director Kelly Reichardt, who also penned the film with her regular screenwriter, Jonathan Raymond, has created a tiresome bubble inside a bubble, focusing their lens to pointless effect on a group of low-level artists in Portland, Oregon.
Everyone seems self-involved and egotistical. Jealousy and microaggressions are the currency here. Who is eating too much free cheese at a tiny gallery opening is an actual key point of contention. It’s like a New Yorker cartoon come to life.
At the center is Williams, working on a a fourth Reichardt film, who has entered a de-glamorizing machine and come out the other end as spectacularly dowdy, with a functional haircut, ill-fitting skirts, arms heavy at her sides, beige ankle-length socks and, gasp, Crocs.
Her Lizzy is desperate to get to working on her rustic ceramic figurines, but real life nuisances intrude, like her job, even though it’s a cushy desk spot at an art institute and her mom is the boss. Her brother’s mental health is spiraling, but she secretly resents him because he is considered a better, visionary artist. Even feeding her cat — Oscar candidate for Best Onscreen Kitty — seems to cause angst.
One begins to wonder if Reichardt and Raymond really even like their main protagonist. She’s a passive-aggressive wimp, someone who when told what she wants can’t happen yet will angrily rip up your flower bed or leave nasty voicemails when she knows you’re occupied. “You’re not the only one with a deadline,” she will whine.
When an ailing pigeon enters her life — see previous mention of Oscar-nominated cat — Lizzy is not compassionate. “Go die somewhere else,” she tells it. This becomes less a Christopher Guest-like satire about the art world than a sly send-up of artsy Bohemians who would rather sway on a tire swing than fix stuff.
There are more interesting people here than sour Lizzy, like old classmate and landlord Jo (Hong Chau) and Eric, the school’s amenable kiln master (André Benjamin, a.k.a. André 3000). Judd Hirsch continues his resurgence — he was nominated for an Oscar opposite Williams in “The Fabelmans” — in another art lover role. And Portland also comes alive — the charmingly weedy streets, ill-fitting fences and crumbling buildings.
Some of the more lovely moments in the movie are watching battalions of young people eagerly making their art — photography, silkscreens, weavings, painting, pottery and installations — at the Oregon College of Art and Craft. It’s crushing to find out later that it was closed in 2019. Why lie? For art’s sake, we suppose.
Reichardt has built a reputation for carefully observed, granular vistas of people struggling through life, but here is a heroine who can’t win us over. Lizzy lovingly gazes at her own work, though where her impulses come from is never explored.
Williams’ portrait is not sweetly curmudgeonly or sweetly neurotic but downright petty. Lizzy resents other artists’ success and knows the price of everything — $3.99 for a bag of birdseed — but the value of nothing.
“Showing Up” may be a rallying cry to let artists just be artists — Reichardt is famously an artist in residence at Bard College, in large part to have health insurance — but she may have miscalculated how much compassion is generated by a supposed lover of beauty who is as cold and off-putting as her figurines.
“Showing Up,” an A 24 release that opens Friday in theaters, is rated R for brief nudity and swear words. Running time: 108 minutes. One star out of four.
___ MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. ___ Online: https://a24films.com/films/showing-up
___ Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits