Title: Art School Confidential
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Play time: 1h 42min
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Screenwriters: Daniel Clowes
Starring: Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, John Malkovich
Art School Confidential is almost majestic: every shot, every line, every gesture is calculated to exude the maximum conceivable amount of bitterness per unit. At first this doesn’t seem surprising: the director is Terry Zwigoff, after all, the master of dark, scathing, nominally “unpleasant” humor who brought us Ghost World and Bad Santa. But while the tone seems to fit his mold, a glance back at those other films, even in the mind’s eye, should reveal that this is something new. Zwigoff’s films have been a lot of things — bitingly sarcastic, even vicious — but even when it plumbed the depths of Billy Bob Thornton’s debauched despair, Bad Santa was never bitter. And when you consider that Art School Confidential is, like the lovely and generous Ghost World, based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, the shift is pretty shocking.
Bitterness is as good as anything else, I guess, but the problem is that Art School Confidential lashes out at straw men. It surrounds a talented young artist (Max Minghella) with hideous art school stereotypes and sends him descending into desperation, greed, maybe violence. Gosh, he really hates these people — “All of humanity is too stupid to live; fuck them all” he sneers late in the film — but… who are they? I stand ready to be proven wrong — any art school graduates want to help me out? — but the world Clowes sets up here is so shallow and petty that I started thinking that this must be a conglomeration of everything Clowes had ever heard or read about the awful, hopeless, soul-crushing pretentiousness of art school. Now I learn that Clowes, of course, went to art school, though he “considers himself largely self-taught.” So, what gives? Is it really like this?
Yes, yes, I know: satire. But while everything that surrounds the protagonist is the stuff of a lampoon, young Jerome Platz himself is played almost completely straight. In a somewhat melancholy way, the film does poke fun of his aspirations of becoming a Great Artist, and, as Picasso reportedly could, landing the most beautiful girl in the school/in the city/in the world. But the various crises spurred by the shallowness and stupidity of those around him seem false because he is surrounded by parodies of real people.
The film is very funny in spots. It would be difficult for it not to be, with a cast that includes John Malkovich, Anjelica Huston and Steve Buscemi. Zwigoff and his actors have a way with body language, and many of the laughs come from subtle touches: I love the way Jerome looks over his shoulder in bewilderment at his drawing teacher’s paintings of triangles, after the latter triumphantly declares that it took him 25 years to learn to paint this way. It is a considerable consolation that Zwigoff, at least, brings back much of the mean, off-kilter humor that made Ghost World and Bad Santa cult hits.
Alas, Art School Confidential is missing those films’ emotional core. Bad Santa was the height of silliness, but Zwigoff and Thornton made us believe it: the world the characters inhabited seemed to fit together, and the plot made a sick sort of sense. This movie seems desperately contrived, with supporting characters and plot developments introduced to put the protagonist through the motions. There is a moment late in the film when Jerome discovers something about the school that crushes his dreams, and it should have been touching — it almost got there; I felt it. But like most other aspects of the film it seems a bit too arbitrary, too unexplainable. I am not even concerned with whether it makes sense considering what we know, though it doesn’t. Rather, I was disappointed that the revelation didn’t come as part of the story, seeming instead to have simply been unleashed by the screenwriter. It is shocking to see Zwigoff and Clowes struggle to such a degree with the mixture of drama and satire. I’m not sure whom I would have more eagerly trusted with this concept.