Terry Zwigoff, the inflammatory director of some of this decade’s brightest, most incisive, and offbeat comedies (like features Ghost World and Bad Santa; not to mention the brilliant documentary Crumb) has made his first official misstep with the flat, unfunny Art School Confidential. Cataclysmic is the best way to describe this fall out of the “hip” loop.
It’s a movie about an art school that is unlike any actual educational facility you might find in real life: it is more a cartoonish nightmare, with a smug, self-righteous cadre of (literally) insane students running amok (albeit stylishly), posing nude, smoking cigarettes in class, and not really doing anything of an academic nature. HBO’s Six Feet Under brilliantly captured both the cutthroat nature of art school, as well as it’s absurd seriousness; Art School Confidential doesn’t even come close to the astute point of view that the now-cancelled series was able to document, mainly due to it’s severe lack of well-formed characters.
For example, in a whimpering attempt at street creed, a dopey, apathetic John Malkovich (who also produced) plays a boring art teacher / struggling artist whose self-seriousness is only matched by his lack of talent. The actor is renowned for his nervous talent and flair for creating an indelible impression even in the smallest roles, but that edge is absent. He almost literally fades into the background, he’s so unimportant. Anjelica Huston, who once upon a time was the dramatic powerhouse that starred in edgy fare like The Grifters, shows up, criminally, for less than two minutes of the entire film. Dynamic British thespian and Oscar winner Jim Broadbent (whose diverse credits include Iris and Moulin Rouge) gets to really cut loose as a homicidal, alcoholic artist and graduate of the “school”. The presence of these fine performers is frustrating, given the meager tasks assigned to them and the film’s lurid milieu. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
What could have been another opportunity for the director to utilize his graphic novel-esque perspective and his colorful style of storytelling unfortunately winds up a tired excuse for satire. Art School Confidential is a tired mix of dumb jokes and stereotypes: do we really need another insipid take on the “frenetic film student” or another fey “gay art guy” leering at his heterosexual peers? There is also an unfortunate rip-off of the “cafeteria scene” in Mean Girls, where the lead character is led through the labyrinth of cutesy-named cliques and vulgar caricatures. Only in this film, it plays offensively instead of for laughs (where the guide through this particular circle of hell refers to the school as a “pussy buffet”). Zwigoff should have really known better than to tread in such murky waters.
Zwigoff usually has a unique gift for thoughtfully conveying the story of someone who may be unlikable and a touch unsympathetic. In Bad Santa he even managed to get viewers to root for a rather unlikely protagonist: a Santa-for-hire who is an alcoholic druggie that makes fun of overweight children for kicks. Here, with the blank Jerome (played with zero skill by Max Minghella, the pouty-lipped son of amazing director Anthony), Zwigoff really comes up short. Jerome is whiny, confused, and lacking direction. He comes to the school intending to be “the world’s greatest living artist”, idolizing Picasso, without having any real talent or originality to his work. Perhaps the problem lies with the comic book story that the film is based: Jerome is but a one-dimensional caricature of a living breathing art school student; lacking any real depth to draw in either the viewer’s sympathy or their ire. He’s just sort of there, being a bore. Minghella comes off looking more charismatic in the extra’s meager gag reel, to give you an indication of how tedious his performance actually is. In the film he seems to be missing a sense of humor, but in the context of real-life he seems relaxed, genuine and warm. This could have been a major component of Jerome had Minghella done his homework.
While everyone is dithering about, being flaky and making “art” (the “student art” shown onscreen is the film’s lone amusing element, with its use of garish colors and stereotypical, amateurish execution), a serial killer is on the loose. What is intended to be a fun device to get the audience revved up for a classic “who-done-it?” type of guessing game ends up lacking any edge at all: with the cameos and the less than fleshed out performances, it is impossible to care who “did it”. We are assaulted with so many ancillary characters and so many red herrings that it becomes impractical to guess. Was it Jerome? Was it his weird friend? Honestly, the mystery is so weak you won’t care. As the killer claims more lives (and the viewer is “treated” to a pointless scene of brutal, random violence against a woman, along with a monumentally unsuccessful change in the film’s tone), the few viable wheels that Jerome still has turning in his tiny little brain begin to click: to be a great artist, he must become embroiled in the public scandal somehow. Because, obviously, fame equals art.
When people start to suspect Jerome is the killer, they of course begin to think his dreary portfolio is, in actuality, quite clever (when only the night before they were making fun of how by-the-numbers it is). It’s an idiotic commentary on the fickleness of the art world and insulting to anyone who is actually serious about art, just as the mocking, self-important “in-class” discussions about “the meaning of art” ruminations and the tired rehashing of the old “art versus commerce” chestnut are. The film and its subjects could have provided for an interesting, thoughtful meditation on coming of age in the world of art or even a low-brow, high-laughs sort of extravaganza; instead we get regurgitated plot devices and insults to our intelligence.
The film has a wildly uneven tone and pace: the director can’t seem to figure out of if he wants to make a mystery, a satire, or a parody. While Zwigoff seemed to have held the patent on this sort of offbeat tone in his past work, his kooky rudeness is his undoing here.