The last time Terry Zwigoff collaborated on a
film with comic book artist Daniel Clowes they
produced the bittersweet Ghost World, a critically adored
film about misfits, beautiful losers who find each other. Their
new film Art School Confidential hews much closer to Zwigoff’s
last film, Bad Santa, an uproariously profane and mean-spirited
film that aimed to undermine the yuletide spirit with a visceral
assault of bad attitude and bad taste.
Their latest film is a broad parody of an art school filled with
phonies. The film was reportedly shelved after an unsuccessful debut
at Cannes, and it’s not hard to see why. Though filled with
a kind of sneering cynicism that isn’t commonly found in the
multiplex, Art School Confidential, like Bad Santa,
is a decidedly conventional and almost defiantly shallow film. The
humor though is often spot-on, and the film is actually very funny.
Rather than beautiful misfits, the school, Strathmore, is filled
with all the clichés you might expect to find in a art school—crazy
goth chicks, new age hippies, inveterate slackers, pretentious blowhards.
The film’s hero Jerome (Minghella) is as
clueless as any of them. Tormented by bullies and ignored by girls,
Jerome naively hopes that he can become the next Picasso,
and parlay that into getting laid. Unfortunately, his talent for
naturalistic painting is mostly ignored by his trendy classmates.
And when he tries to display one of his paintings to the class,
his teacher (Malkovich) scolds him for “trying
to sing with someone else’s vocal cords”. It’s
this kind of ear for art school blather that provides much of the
film’s best humor.
Jerome’s lack of success with the art and the chicks leads
him to start identifying with a burnt-out alcoholic painter named
Jimmy (Broadbent) who only admires the work of
the serial strangler who has recently started hitting campus. (Yes,
there is a serial killer in here, and yes it is a lame narrative
device, but I think Zwigoff realizes that too.) These scenes with
Jimmy actually have a creepy intensity to them that’s inconsistent
with the rest of the film’s smug cynicism. The hole of an
apartment where Jimmy rots brings back uncomfortable memories of
R. Crumb’s shut-in older brother in Zwigoff’s
much-celebrated documentary. Though he seems to be trying very hard,
Zwigoff may be unable to make an entirely commercial film. Between
the low-brow humor and sloppy plotting we get glimpses of a genuinely
jaded perspective on art and human nature.
The ending, like Bad Santa’s, is tongue-in-cheek
sunny cynicism, with Jerome getting what he always wanted. I’m
afraid Art School Confidential will fall through cracks
though. It’s too clever and too bitter for the multiplex crowd,
but it’s also too conventional and too funny for an art house