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Art School Confidential

2006artschool

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Terry Zwigoff has cultivated a decent career as a filmmaker profiling the disaffected and trolling the margins for the offbeat and the outcast. The same could be said about the graphic novelist Daniel Clowes, whose stories of desperation and depression resonate with a bittersweet nostalgia for better (or at least more tolerable) times. “Art School Confidential” is the second collaboration between Zwigoff and Clowes, but it isn’t anywhere near as good as “Ghost World.” The failures of “Art School Confidential” are many, but chief among them is the complete contempt shown by Zwigoff for virtually the entire cast of characters.

It is one thing to present an outsider or an anti-hero as a central figure, but Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) is far too bland, naïve, and emotionally vacant to merit the affection of even the most jaded viewer. In his earlier work, Zwigoff has managed to identify with nerdy protagonists like Enid and Seymour in “Ghost World” and R. Crumb in “Crumb” (although some would debate whether or not Willie in “Bad Santa” belongs in that company). Minghella’s Platz, who genuinely wants to be the “greatest artist of the 21st century,” dresses up like Picasso for a masquerade party. He is always earnest, and he never once holds the respect of the filmmakers.

Without a character to identify with on some level, “Art School Confidential” is easy to dislike. Zwigoff’s tone is so glib and full of bile, the entire exercise constantly teeters on the verge of full-bore misanthropy. Even the humor, which lurches from ugly caricatures of undergraduate stereotypes to clever put-downs that cut pretentious wannabes to the quick, depends upon the idea that we will laugh at the inhabitants of the film and never with them. Unquestionably, a strong argument could be made that says making fun of art students is easy pickings. If one agrees with this sentiment, watching “Art School Confidential” is the cinematic equivalent of kicking a puppy.

Both Clowes and Zwigoff are cult figures, beloved by just the sort of people they set out to lampoon. Many ardent admirers are likely to become disillusioned when the best that “Art School Confidential” has to offer are wafer-thin jabs at Kevin Smith-esque filmmakers and vain, predatory professors who despise their students. To make matters worse, the character with the greatest potential for substantive commentary, a washed up souse who used to be a promising art world star, is saddled with the lamest and most predictable elements of a conventional plot device that perpetually distracts our attention from anything like character depth or development.

That boozehound is played by the brilliant Jim Broadbent, whose acting ability is first among equals in a cast that includes John Malkovich (one of the movie’s producers), Anjelica Huston, and Steve Buscemi. Broadbent’s disgusting Jimmy comes the closest to the type of character Zwigoff might ordinarily hold in some esteem, but the mechanics of the story insist that he too, is a miserable – and possibly worse than miserable – human being. “Art School Confidential” is sadly forgettable as a movie experience. Clowes’ illustrated world remains a far superior rendering of this milieu.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/19/06.

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