Scottish director Mick Davis, whose first feature was a soccer movie called The Match, has styled Modigliani like a sports film. There's the boorish, successful rival in Pablo Picasso (Omid Djalili), the looming contest that neither one wants to enter because they both feel it's beneath them, numerous opportunities to sell out, and a personal crisis in the form of an anti-Semitic father-in-law (Jim Carter) threatening to take away his daughter's baby. Inevitably, as a last-ditch attempt to make enough money to support his wife-to-be (21-year-old Jeanne Hebuterne, as played by the 30-something actress Elsa Zylberstein), he enters the high-profile art contest, alongside the likes of Diego Rivera and Maurice Utrillo, challenging Picasso to do the same. There's a tense montage sequence of... people painting! And of course, a last-minute crisis that might prevent our hero from making it to the finals on time.
The nature of Modigliani and Picasso's relationship is complicated. They seem like bitter rivals, and at one point, Picasso delivers a truly hideous insult. Yet they also hang out together at times, even taking a drive into the country to meet Pierre Auguste Renoir, who tells them: "I never liked painting nudes. Most of the women in my time were too fat and ugly." Picasso's last word on his deathbed, according to this movie (which is short of 100 percent accurate in other areas, so take it for what it's worth), was "Modigliani." He seems to have admired the man as an artist but delighted in getting under his skin as a human being.
Modigliani explains the conflict by saying simply, "I love you, Pablo; it's myself I hate." As portrayed here, Garcia's Modigliani is a familiar biopic archetype, the passionate artist who yells and throws things every time his integrity is challenged and who will never take the easy route to making money if his ego has to suffer in the process.
Garcia is often insufferable on film, but here he appears to be having a blast, and it's infectious. Too often, he gets cast as the morose, serious guy; here, he gets to be spontaneous, humorous, and full of life. He also gets the standard crying scene and death scene (hardly a spoiler, folks... most biopics end in death), but those are obligations of the genre, pretty much.
Modigliani is a tough sell of a movie, because it isn't really scholarly or deep enough for the art-house crowd -- you'd never know, for example, that the artist sculpted as well as painted or that he was strongly influenced by African tribal masks -- but isn't quite the story that the multiplex crowds would go see. It's very mainstream in execution, but it's tough to believably portray painting as though it were a competitive sport.
Davis tries to get fanciful with a number of hallucination/dream sequences, most notably a running series of moments in which Modigliani has conversations with his own inner child, a device that just doesn't work. In another dream sequence, Modigliani confronts Picasso and tears his rival's face off, only to reveal his own visage. (Where's Master Yoda when you need him?) One can appreciate Davis' attempt to go surreal without applauding his lack of aplomb in doing so; to see this kind of style done right, watch Julie Taymor's Frida instead.
There is one moment when Davis does nail the appropriate surreal tone, and ironically it isn't in a dream at all. It's the birthday party of Max Jacob (Udo Kier), where everyone comes dressed as a samurai, save Jacob, who's dressed in full-on geisha-girl regalia, then presented with a cake containing a pretty young boy. Kier often gives off a flamboyantly gay vibe, but it's rare to see him indulge it quite so campily onscreen. That Picasso then tries to start a samurai duel is icing on the cake.