Ahh, remember the days at art school, when undergraduates in the bloom of their youth, hungry for experience and learning, rested at the knees of wise, charismatic tutors who will mentor them and help them conquer the world with their talent, and their days filled with camaraderie and romance?
Well, then you must have been taking really good drugs and dreaming all through your college years.
“Art School Confidential”, adapted, warped and expanded from Daniel Clowes’ original short story in “Eightball” by Terry Zwigoff, scripted by Clowes and Zwigoff is a gleefully malicious satire of art schools and the ambitions of young artists scrambling for the big brass ring of Fame and Fortune.
18 year-old Jerome Platz (played with uncanny conviction by Max Minghella) is a shy kid who used his ability to draw in high school as an outlet for his feelings of inadequacy and his penchant for being a punching bag for the bullies. Sketching hot girls was also the only way he could find an excuse to talk to them, though he never got a date or even a hand-job from any of them.
Jerome is accepted to the mythical Strathmore Institute in New York City, where he hopes to realize his dream of becoming a great and famous artists, with gallery shows, the admiration of his peers, and, most of all, the love of a beautiful artist’s model he had become fixated on when he saw her picture on the school’s brochure back when he was applying to college.
Jerome plunges into the wild world of art school, with the unending parade of grotesques based on stereotypes anyone who has ever been to art school could never fail to recognize: the class kiss-ass, the holy vegan hippie, the beatnik girl who wears black and a bipolar condition like a second skin, the apathetic, bitter Asian American sculpture teacher who barely has the energy to shrug and sneer, and even his head instructor, Professor Sanderford (played by John Malkovich doing his best John Malkovich thing) is an Art world lifer who alternates lazy and self-serving with token nurturing lectures, all trapped on the phone trying to needle a new show out of a top gallery owner, spilling out all his neediness and neurosis in the process.
Jerome’s roommates are Matthew, a Fashion major so fey and closeted that he’ll be the last to realize he’s gay, and the loud and gregarious Vince (played by “My Name is Earl” co-star Ethan Suplee), a Film major and wannabe-player convinced his thesis film about the still-at-large Strathmore Strangler will write his ticket to a big-time career.
Along the way, Jerome also finally encounters his dream girl when she poses nude for his class. He discovers his dream girl’s name is Audrey (played by British actress Eve Myles), and she’s virtually Art World Royalty – the daughter of a renowned New York artist, and her air of melancholy suggests years of unspoken regrets and betrayals from both her father and the Art world at large, which means her choice of lovers is a lot less than sound.
Max’s earnest optimism and hopes are consistently corroded by the constant spite, back-biting and criticism of his fellow students, all of whom as self-obsessed as himself. His already-precarious belief in his own talent is further undermined when his vacuous jock classmate Jonah’s artless and flat paintings of vehicles are lauded by both Sanderford and his classmates as innovative and groundbreaking while his own traditional and accomplished portraits are rounded greeted with indifference. That is, when they’re not being roundly ignored altogether.
What’s worse, Eve starts dating Jonah instead of Max, which plunges Max into a maelstrom of despair and failed attempts to one-up Jonah.
Max’s descent into nihilism and bitterness brings him into contract with a middle-aged, alcoholic and forgotten alumnus also named Jerome (played by British character actor Jim Broadbent with scenery-chewing slouchiness), who represents the bleakest future Jerome could end up in.
As he plunges deeper into his drive for success and recognition, the shadow of the Strathmore Strangler looms closer and closer…
“Art School Confidential” is not a happy, fluffy movie with subtle, sensitive character studies, but a broad and mean cherry bomb thrown at a world of people who have been beaten about the head and raped with a copy of Artforum magazine for so long that they long to be accepted by it. Anyone who’s ever taken an art course in college will recognize the people Clowes and Zwigoff are mercilessly satirizing here. As a veteran (or should that be ‘survivor’…?) of New York art schools, Clowes is clearly telling a story from experience here. The world of gallery openings and their furious politicking, full of cynical, abusive and masochistic relationships, feels all too true. All the characters are supremely self-preoccupied, and Clowes and Zwigoff take that to a ruthless and bitterly funny conclusion. Max is so obsessed with his own pain and fear of failure that he tragically fails to notice or understand the signs of the world about to come down on him like a falling canvas. Anyone expecting the usual Hollywood ending of the hero learning from his mistake and doing right to redeem himself is in for a surprise. And through it all, Zwigoff keeps the comedy coming with the punchiest dialogue and cuts to deliver maximum irony, which is the prevailing sentiment of the movie. In fact, there’s so irony here you’d think Clowes and Zwigoff consider it a tangy, exotic dessert to be savored like a slice of gourmet chocolate cake. This also seems to form a pessimistic and misanthropic trilogy next to Zwigoff’s last two movies “Ghost World” and “Bad Santa”.
“Art School Confidential” is the nastiest American movie of the year, with bitter laughs to warm the coldest bastard’s heart. Surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel and veteran satirist Billy Wilder would have been proud.
Me? I laughed like a drain.
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