Art School Confidential (2006): Directed by Terry (Crumb) Zwigoff

Sundance Film Festival, World Premiere, Jan 22, 2006–Vastly disappointing, Art School Confidential represents a step down in the career of visionary filmmaker Terry Zwigoff, who has previously made the brilliant docu Crumb, the honorable feature Ghost World (to which the new film bears some resemblance), and the subversive comedy Bad Santa.

Part satire of art schools, part love story, part serial killer mystery, but not satisfying on any of these levels, Art School Confidential is a rambling film that lacks dramatic center and emotional focus. Bound to disappoint Zwigoff’s fan base, the film should appeal to the arthouse crowd but not much beyond that.

Art School suffers from two major problems. First, one of its lead characters is miscast. As charming as Sophia Miles is, she is at least a decade older than Max Minghella, which means that they look like brother and sister rather than potential lovers (lack of chemistry between them doesn’t help either). Second, the tale’s focus and tone shift from reel to reel, indicating confusion on the filmmakers’ part as to what their film is about.

Like Ghost World, Art School Confidential was adapted from artist-writer Dan Clowes’ cult comic strip and produced by John Malkovich’s company, Mr. Mudd Production. Auteurist critics should be able to detect thematic continuities in Zwigoff’s growing oeuvre. Both Art School and Ghost World center on offbeat personalities”social misfits–“who clash with dominant culture, depicted as a crass system that mutes and marginalizes original and dissenting voices.

Art School follows a talented artist named Jerome Platz (Minghella, in his first leading role), who escapes from high school to a small East Coast art school (modeled on Pratt Institute?).  In the first scene, the boyish freshman declares his ambition to become the greatest artist of the twentieth-first century, just like his hero Picasso.

However, the beauty and craft of Jeromes portraiture are not appreciated in an anything-goes art class, which he finds bewildering and bogus. Jerome’s harsh judgments of his classmates efforts, and his later attempts to create pseudo-art of his own, fail to win him any admirers, to say the least.

Jerome does attract the attention of his dream girl, the stunning and sophisticated Audrey (Myles), who’s a model and the daughter of a celebrated artist. Rejecting the affectations of the local art scene, Audrey is drawn to Jeromes nave sincerity. Later on, when Audrey shifts her attention to Jonah (Matt Keeslar), a hunky painter who becomes the schools latest star, Jerome is heartbroken.

Desperate and eager to please, Jerome concocts a risky plan to make a name for himself and to win Audrey back. Indeed, having failed to impress Audrey (either as artist or as boyfriend) through genuine talent and sensitivity, Jerome embarks on a fraudulent course, imitating Jonah’s primitive style. When that doesn’t work, he appropriates the morbidly violent work of a boozy artist named Jimmy.

As in every Zwigoff’s film, misanthropy is the rule, and here filling out Jerome’s world is a host of offbeat characters, all outsiders.  The self-involved art teacher, Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich), who takes an extracurricular interest in Jerome.  The failed artist Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), who drowns in alcohol and self-pity. The regal art history professor Sophie (Anjelica Huston) whom Jerome approaches for advice.

Jerome’s roommates also constitute a bunch of eccentrics. His worldly classmate Bardo (Joel David Moore) introduces Jerome in the intricate mores of campus life, and Vince, his filmmaker roommate (Ethan Suplee), explodes with violent energy to create a “cinematic masterpiece.”

Laced with moments of humor and poignancy, Art School begins extremely well. However, unlike Ghost World, the film lacks emotional center and coherence. Too much screen time is devoted to establishing the flamboyant types that populate the campus and its surroundings. Gradually, the film drifts into a routine coming-of-age saga with all the rites of passage that go along with it.

The worst subplot is the serial killings around the campus, which never becomes a menacing mystery, and doesn’t get the audience interested in unmasking the killer’s identity.

The film’s best parts are those dealing with the modishness and hypocrisy of the art world, the questionable issues of whether it’s possible to study art and to what extent schooling is a legit or useful channel for artistic expression, let alone professional success.

Jerome’s quest to get Audrey, his search for an authentic voice, and his embrace of opportunism, not to mention the hunt for the killer and the unmasking of an undercover cop, just clutter the film without making it more involving.

The institute is depicted as an asylum for affected students, pedantic instructors, and other kinds of freaks. Compared to his classmates, who are depressed, punked-out, or hostile, Jerome is too “normal” and “sensitive,” which makes his work “inaccessible” and him “persona non-grate.”

Steeped in caricature, the satire is full of stereotypes. By now, Malkovich, as a slimy and self-absorbed teacher, could have done his role in his sleep. Joel David Moore, as a wise-ass student, and Jack Ong, as a burned-out, laconic professor, have some good moments.

Anjelica Huston nails the role of a wise, world-weary professor in two nicely observed scenes. Steve Buscemi, who shined in Ghost World and appears unbilled here, is given very little to do. Buscemi plays Broadway Bob, the self-important and manipulative proprietor of a trendy artists’ restaurant that displays the work of promising talents.

Embodying bitterness and drunken animosity, Broadbent offers an eccentric presence, but his scenes throw the movie off balance. Jimmy’s scenes with Jerome recall the relationship between Buscemi’s Seymour and Thora Birch’s Enid in Ghost World. In both films, a sensitive but bruised adult serves as mentor to a fresh and naive teenager.

Throughout, Zwigoff and Clowes’ cynical sensibility and misanthropy are in plain evidence. With broad and familiar strokes, Art School satirizes poseurs, artistes, druggies, burnouts, wannabe filmmakers, professors as failed artists, and other types that make up art institutes.

Occasionally, there is sharp criticism of the pretentiousness of gallery showings, magazine reviews, and other manifestations of pomposity, but the satirical elements are not integrated with the other subplots. Mixing romance, comedy, mystery, and satire, the film fails to jell these diverse strands into a coherent whole. In its worst moments, the film unintentionally recalls the Animal House movie series.

The best thing about the film is the soulful performance of Max Minghella, who unifies a diffuse narrative that tries too hard to be hip and cool. Minghella (son of director Anthony) who’s rapidly becoming a hot actor (last seen in The Bee Season) gives a wonderful performance. With big inquisitive dark eyes and expressive face, Minghella depicts a morally flawed but basically honest youngster, torn between the alluring and disgusting elements of the art world.

Uncharacteristically, Zwigoff’s direction is heavy-handed and the production values are garish. Considering that the setting is an art school, is it too much to expect some visual pleasure?  Instead, the film seems to adopt an obtrusive visual strategy, courtesy of Jamie Anderson’s lurid cinematography and Howard Cummings’ trashy production design.