Having utterly detested Terry Zwigoff’s last film, Bad Santa, and found his previous collaboration with writer Daniel Clowes, Ghost World, incredibly overrated, I approached this new Zwigoff-Clowes effort with no small degree of trepidation. And while the film won me over with its witty observations about art and art schools and its fascinating — and sometimes successful — attempt at crossing genre boundaries, I have to say that Art School Confidential is a deeply flawed work. But it’s a flawed work where even the flaws are not without interest.
As with Zwigoff and Clowes’ previous film there’s an undeniable air of terminal coolness to it all — and, worse, coolness of a weirdly adolescent stripe. It wouldn’t be weird if the film was the work of a couple of young iconoclasts, but at 58 and 45 respectively, Zwigoff and Clowes are hardly young iconoclasts. They’re certainly old enough to have started questioning the romance of cynicism, yet that doesn’t seem to be the case — the attitude of the film is purely that of the holier-and-smarter-than-thou college student. It’s funny and clever and a lot of it’s very much on target, but it’s so superior and so intellectualized that it lacks any real emotional resonance. Despite all of this, taken for what it is, the film is both accomplished and daring.
The story follows a young artist, Jerome (Max Minghella, Bee Season), in his first year at the Strathmore School of Art. Jerome is a not uncommon mixture of the young idealist who, somewhat grandly, wants to be “the greatest artist of the 21st Century,” but who also views art school as a great place to get a girl. What he finds, however, is a collection of posers, fakes, enthusiasts and nut-cases — both in his classmates and professors. Anyone who has ever been enrolled in an art school or the arts programs of any school will recognize these characters. They were there when I dabbled in art school in 1972; they were there when I went back about 10 years later. They’re still there. There are new ones every year — except for the tenured professors, some of whom are undoubtedly still there.
In short order, we find the angry feminist, the trippy hippie, the pretentious intellectual, the obvious homosexual who constantly talks about his girlfriend, the professor who doesn’t care, the professor who is more interested in getting a show of his own than teaching, etc. Jerome is even more horrified to find that his own rather traditional artistic talents are ignored or dismissed in favor of more…well, for want of a better word, interpretive works. Through a complex, yet ultimately somewhat simplistic narrative, Jerome finds his belief in himself and art shaken to a point where he realizes that he’ll have to adapt to the art world if he wants to be taken seriously by it. The question arises — one of many in the film, including whether or not art can be taught — as to just how far Jerome is willing to reinvent or even compromise himself in order to get to where he thinks he wants to go.
John Malkovich adds substance to the film’s mix of characters by playing an absurd teacher, who spent years trying out styles — and, seemingly, a variety of pliable young men in need of guidance — before hitting on his true calling: painting triangles. In addition, there’s the great Jim Broadbent as a bitter, slivovitz-soaked failed artist who specializes in telling Jerome (for the price of a bottle) everything the kid doesn’t want to hear about the art world and what it takes to make it as an artist. (His question about Jerome’s skills at oral sex is almost worth the price of admission by itself.)
This all works in a bitterly amusing way, but it’s almost too much. There’s also the question of the wisdom of the film’s subplot, which has bothered a lot of reviewers, about a serial killer loose on the campus. On the one hand, it’s too transparently developed and too pleased with its own cleverness, but the subplot finally does fit in with the film’s overall tone, making it hard to dismiss altogether. Overall, the film is bitter, flawed, a bit sophomoric, but compelling in a way that better balanced cinematic efforts rarely are. Rated R for language including sexual references, nudity and a scene of violence.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke