Art School Confidential (2006)



(director: Terry Zwigoff; screenwriter: Daniel Clowes/based on his short comic story Eightball; cinematographer: Jamie Anderson; editor: Robert Hoffman; music by David Kitay; cast: Max Minghella (Jerome Platz), Sophia Myles (Audrey), John Malkovich (Professor Sandiford), Jim Broadbent (Jimmy), Matt Keeslar (Jonah), Ethan Suplee (Vince), Joel David Moore (Bardo), Nick Swardson (Matthew), Anjelica Huston (Sophie), Jeanette Brox (Shilo), Katherine Moennig (Candace), Jack Ong (Professor Okamura); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Lianne Halfon/John Malkovich/Russell Smith; Sony Pictures Classics; 2006)

“An inspired work.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Terry Zwigoff’ (“Ghost World”/”Bad Santa”/”Crumb”) misanthropic, confrontational satire on the art scene is an inspired work based on the comic book story Eightball by Daniel Clowes (studied art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn). The uneven comedy gets lost in too many ideas and in all its subplots that include a murder mystery, a cartoonish depiction of an art school, the travails of a young artist who aspires to be the next Picasso and the depiction of the art world as being in bed with the business world. The pompous, self-important targets the filmmaker aims for are as easy to get as shooting ducks in the pond. Also the hero is not a very likable fellow who displays little sensitivity, little integrity, mucho naivety and lots of ambition, which makes it hard to sympathize with him when things break wrong. The sour Zwigoff takes cheap shots at everyone and reduces everyone to a bad cliché, but fails to take shots at his wise-ass protagonist (alter ego of Clowes) that get to the bone. But the cruel humor has some zip, as it’s delivered with conviction and zeal. It comes to the dismal conclusion that the art world scene is for the nerds and assholes to get revenge on the bullies.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

In his suburban school days the bland and nerdy Jerome Platz (Max Minghella, son of the noted director Anthony Minghella) is picked on by the school bullies and rejected by the hot babes, but aspires to be the greatest artist of the 21st century and thereby score the most beautiful chicks. Talented in drawing, he attends a fictional art school in Manhattan called Strathmore Institute and lives in the dorm with insensitive and uncommunicative roommates, the obnoxious aspiring filmmaker Vince (Ethan Suplee) and the still in the closet fashion designer major Matthew (Nick Swardson). Jerome’s naturalistic portrait of model Audrey (Sophia Myles), the girl of his dreams and the nude model on the school brochure that lured him to attend, is not appreciated by his mediocre fellow students and his poseur, self-promoting art teacherProfessor Sandiford (Professor Sandiford) who can’t tell the difference between the schlock and the more proficiently technical art. The teachers are viewed as careerist losers who teach because their art work sucks. Sandiford draws triangles for the last 25 years that don’t sell, Professor Okamura (Jack Ong) tells his students he doesn’t care if they attend his class and another art history professor (Anjelica Huston) relies on her dignity to get over while she delivers banal lectures. Through another sour student named Bardo (Joel David Moore), who childishly breaks everyone down to fit a certain mold and is given to popping off with gross remarks such as “this school is like a pussy buffet,” Jerome is introduced to an older embittered alcoholic–a former Strathmore student named Jimmy (Jim Broadbent). The failed artist lives in a tenement in the nearby slum and it soon becomes easy to figure out he’s the strangler the police are looking for after a number of random killings on the campus, but the self-absorbed Jerome is too blind to notice that and obtains the derelict’s paintings so he can win over Audrey, his objet d’art, from the handsome square looking joe named Jonah (Matt Keeslar). He’s a married undercover cop posing as an art student who has won the model over with his looks and has won the art class over with his seductive lesser art pieces, while they reject Jerome’s more accomplished work. By the end Jerome sells his soul and loses his identity to win over the narcissistic and fickle Audrey and gain recognition through notoriety, as he turns in Jimmy’s violent paintings of the murders as his own and is happy as a lark that his career has taken off once jailed as the strangler.

It was messy, crass and bleak, but it was very funny in spots, as the film was not compromised and it had a self-confident bitter air of speaking as the voice of truth (though I can hardly agree with the film’s overly simplified notion that the main reason one becomes an artist is to get even with bullies and score chicks, which sounds like sour grapes) as it was thumbing its nose at all the frauds that pose as artist, the students and teachers who use art to have a safe career and the opportunists who despite their limited talent get to the top because they know who to blow or just luck out and hit on something that’s hot. In the end, Zwigoff makes a rather interesting point when it’s revealed that the American public has a greater appreciation for a serial killer than an artist. The strange thing about that viewpoint is that it might be true and all the bile spilled here about the pretentiousness of the art world might also be true, even if the film is awkward and not completely fair the way it puts forth its arguments. I would still rather see a flawed film like this one that tries to say something that is provocative than a safe and better made film that has no intention of ruffling the feathers of the public.