How do you make fun of the art world? Like the current presidential administration, the art world eludes any approach with satirical intent â€” whatever jabs you can come up with, the reality is probably far stranger and worse.
Daniel Clowes published the comic on which "Art School Confidential" is loosely based earlier in his career â€” a short, amusing, bitter "expose" of the art school world (Clowes attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn) from someone whose art school days were clearly not so far behind him. The film, the second collaboration between director Terry Zwigoff and Clowes, is equally amusing and bitter, but after "Ghost World," feels like a step backwards for both of them.
Our hero, Jerome, is good at drawing and terrible at navigating high school â€” constantly bullied, he dreams of becoming a famous artist and, Picasso-like, having women fall all over him regardless of what he looks like (not actually a problem, as he’s played by the ever-so-pretty Max Minghella, son of Anthony). But art school doesn’t turn out to be creative and social sanctuary he hoped â€” his classmates all conform themselves to terrible stereotypes (it’s too easy, but it is funny when Jerome’s eternal student friend Bardo (Joel Moore) rounds the room pointing out the "Vegan Holy Man," the "Angry Lesbian," the "Kiss Ass," etc.) and no one seems to care for his straightforward painting style. Still, Jerome holds fast to his hopes for fame and tail, particularly when he meets Audrey (Sophia Myles), artists’ model, general scene hanger-on and the girl of his dreams. Jerome chases Audrey, but Audrey seems more interested in the emerging art star from his class, Jonah (Matt Keeslar), whose unsophisticated paintings of cars and spacemen are proclaimed brilliant by Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich) and, therefore, the rest of the school.
And then there’s some side plot about a killer on campus. The thing is, Zwigoff and Clowes come up with some truly outstanding, excruciating scenes, like when a monstrous former student who’s made it big returns to the school to give a talk, or when Sandiford makes a pass at a completely oblivious Jerome, but the film as a whole just seems toothless. "Ghost World"’s Seymour was mocked by everyone for his social haplessness and fixation on obscure 78s the world had no use for, was well aware of this and adrift in self-loathing, but was still hopelessly in love with the music anyway. In "Art School Confidential," even Jerome cares less about art than fame, and the only character whose artistic drive goes beyond his desire for acclaim is insane. That exquisite sense of empathy for the outsider is gone; without it, "Art School" is actually less dark and sharp-edged than it could have been.
Opens today in limited release.
+ Art School Confidential (official site)