Reviewer: David Swindle
Sometimes, knowing that the disappointment is coming can make all the difference. First there was the warning from the former Castleton Arts coworker. Then there was the www.rottentomatoes.com approval rating of 36 percent - just a bit higher than our Commander in Chief's. So the expectations were generously lowered. And that was an important thing to do. Had that not been done then I'd be really devastated instead of just somewhat bummed.
See, Terry Zwigoff, the director of the newly released "Art School Confidential," is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers. The man's seriously within the Top Five. Just check out "Crumb ," "Ghost World ," and "Bad Santa " and it's easy to see why. "Crumb" is one of the greatest documentaries ever made. "Ghost World" was my Number One film of 2001. And "Bad Santa" is one of the funniest films of the past five years.
He had a perfect track record. No one can hit a home run every time, though. It had to happen sooner or later.
And so we have "Art School Confidential," which again pairs Zwigoff with alternative comics author Daniel Clowes. In "Ghost World," their first collaboration, the two received an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. It's unlikely they will receive the same honor for this script.
Jerome (Max Minghella, son of filmmaker Anthony Minghella), is a young artist with dreams of greatness in the art world. And so he enrolls at the art school Strathmore Academy. Once there he discovers every art school stereotype in the book. Bardo (Joel Moore,) a student familiar with the goings-on at Strathmore because each semester he drops out so he can start again with a different major the next semester, befriends Jerome and points out all the art school stereotypes: the Filmmaker (Ethan Suplee,) the Beatnk Girl, the Suck-Up, the Vegan Holy Man, the Angry Lesbian, the Weirdo, the Mom, and several others. Later he takes Jerome to meet Jimmy (an excellent Jim Broadbent,) a pathetic, drunken old man and Strathmore graduate living in a disgusting apartment. On the first day, Prof. Sandiford (John Malkovich, also one of the film's producers,) informs Jerome and his classmates that only one out of 100 of them will actually be able to make a living off of their art. Later Jerome visits Sandiford at home and sees his triangle paintings. "I was one of the first to do it," Sandiford says proudly. For Jerome there are two pursuits in the film that are intertwined.
The first is his quest for greatness as an artist. Despite his obvious, genuine talent, his classmates and teacher look down on his work and instead celebrate the lame, uber-pretentious creations of the other students. This is a theme first seen in "Ghost World" where silly, pretentious art like a tampon in a tea cup presented as "found art" is highly praised. Jerome's style ignored, he tries imitating other styles only to be criticized just as harshly. We see how cutthroat and brutal the art world is, as students fight to try and
get gallery shows.
The second quest is the romantic one. Jerome pursues Audrey (Sophia Myles,) who works as a model for the students. Not only is she gorgeous but also friendly and encouraging. Jerome pursues her with mild success until a handsome, jock-like character named Jonah attracts Audrey's attention.
Oh, one other thing. The school is in a state of fear because there's a serial killer stalking the grounds at night strangling people.
So, yeah, there's an awful lot going on, so much so that the film is something of a mess as these different plot strands intertwine and the different characters pursue their own goals. The result is a very uneven, shaky picture with scenes being very hit-or-miss. At the very least the film remains somewhat interesting and mildly entertaining.
There are many jokes, a fair number of which fail but enough manage to stick. The film just does not have a focus; it's doing so many different things that it fails to make a strong impression. With what is one to walk away from the film? A view of how shallow, pretentious, and pathetic the art world is? That becoming a "great artist" is more about who you are and what you do than what your art actually is? Or are we just supposed to treat the film as a trifle, a comedic entertainment?
A big piece of the problem is that these characters are not that compelling or complex. We sympathize with our protagonist, but he is not allowed the kind of human depth that we need. And it's especially difficult to sympathize with all these pretentious art student characters. Even Jimmy, the sad drunken artist, the character with the most potential to be complex and engaging, simply is not given the time necessary. And it's sad because it's Broadbent and it's obvious from his performance - one of, if not the best in the film - that the character could have been much more.
And unfortunately I'm going to have to join the chorus: what is up with this serial killer business? I really expect better of Zwigoff and Clowes to avoid the intrusion of a standard movie plot. And if they're going to force us through such a subplot, the least they could do is resolve the thing. Instead we get one of those final scenes that leaves us with a "yes, then what happens?" feeling at the conclusion.
What happened to the denouement? What happens to Jerome and Audrey? Oh well.
But hey, it's OK. Everyone's allowed a misfire now and then. And Zwigoff's grade point average is still pretty good - three As and one D+. That gives him a 3.3325, a solid B+ average.
If "Art School Confidential" accomplishes anything, it's to remind people of his earlier films which are definitely worth celebrating and watching multiple times. Do not let the weakness of this film deter you from checking out his others. This weekend, instead of seeing "Art School Confidential" rent or buy "Crumb," "Ghost World," and "Bad Santa." "Crumb" was recently re-released in a special edition that has a delightful commentary with Zwigoff and film critic Roger Ebert (who is a big fan of the film, making it part of his "great movies" series.) The film is also remastered and looks much better than it did on its original DVD release.