Art School paints with broad brush

by Glen Baity

‘“It’s pathetic. No offense.’”

The above represents a typical criticism the characters in Art School Confidential level at one another’s work. Art students, the film declares, are a vindictive, violently opinionated bunch, with passive aggression and ennui to spare. This observation is nothing new, but one hopes the film would have something a little deeper to offer by the end. Sadly, it does not.

This is the second collaboration between director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes, and they bring with them a weird group of characters around which to stage a murder mystery. But given the sense of humor one can find in any Terry Zwigoff film (Crumb, Bad Santa), it should work much better than it does here.

The story concerns the education of Jerome (Max Minghella), aspiring ‘“Best Artist of the 21st Century,’” who leaves behind a difficult high school experience to attend Strathmore University, an art school of moderate prestige.

When he arrives, his insane film student roommate (Ethan Suplee) maligns him for never having heard of the Strathmore Strangler, a serial killer who prowls the slums surrounding the campus. It’s established early, but the killer angle doesn’t kick in until the second and third acts. While that arc slowly unfolds in the background, Jerome learns about the finer points of the art school pecking order as he pursues the elusive Audrey (Sophia Myles), a nude model in one of his drawing classes.

The film is based on Clowes’ comic of the same name, and Zwigoff has perfected his cinematic adaptation of the artist’s distinctive motif ‘— the characters are slightly off-kilter in both their looks and behavior, and the tone of the script is appropriately disaffected, true to Clowes’ style.

Unfortunately the film simply tries to do too much in its quest to be a murder mystery while also being a comment on murder mysteries, as well as a loving tribute to and satire of art school. Presumably Clowes was frustrated by the dogma he encountered in his own artistic education ‘— that would account for the insider’s tone ‘— but his skewering of it here is too easy and obvious.

Art School Confidential gets bogged down with too many ancillary characters. There’s an early scene in which Jerome’s friend Bardo (Joel Moore) gives the rundown of the different art school archetypes: there’s the brown-noser, the pretentious ass, the angry lesbian, the aged empty nester exploring her artistic side, among many others. It’s amusing in a cartoony sort of way, but the film loses focus as it tries to tell too many of these characters’ stories, and allows none of them to rise above that initial categorization, which is frustrating coming from this creative team. Zwigoff and Clowes’ first collaboration, 2001’s Ghost World, was a great character study that fearlessly delved into its subjects’ psyches and laid bare their fundamental motivations. It was at once tender, dark and brutally funny, and remains one of my favorite films.

Art School Confidential, by contrast, reeks of effort as it affects (or lampoons, depending on how you read it) an air of bratty nihilism, and there’s a real sense that Zwigoff and Clowes are trying to out-smart their smartass subjects. The film, therefore, amounts to a contest of who can be more sarcastic, the characters or their creators, and watching that scuffle is a poor substitute for the kind of insight this team is capable of delivering.

The film loses its way after the first third, as Jerome futilely pines for Audrey. He becomes increasingly jealous of toast-of-the-school freshman artist Jonah, and sinks deep into a cliched, besotted depression. The ending is ridiculous, right out of the 1994 faux-antiestablishment screed S.F.W., as it indicts the art world for its appreciation of style over substance.

Art students, teachers, and enthusiasts are really quite easily-led and shallow, it seems to be saying. Whether or not one buys that opinion will dictate how well-received Art School Confidential is on a personal level. In any case, it’s undeniable that the film’s characters have hardly earned their world-weariness, and maybe that’s part of the satire. But Art School Confidential gives its audience no well-developed or believable characters, so there is no one onscreen to attach to, no one worth cheering for. The result is a film about purportedly shallow people that comes off as shallow itself, and it feels like a missed opportunity for a normally perceptive director and writer. Though not without its enjoyable moments, Art School Confidential stands as a sadly transparent, two-dimensional film.

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