Art School Confidential (2006)

Art School Confidential: 2006, dir. Terry Zwigoff. Seen May 14 (Alamo South Lamar).
I wanted to see Art School Confidential with The Beau, and he checked Rotten Tomatoes beforehand, as he hadn’t heard much about the film. The rating was low (in the low 30s) and he looked pretty skeptical. But I had read a positive review that caught my interest, and anyway it was the only movie playing at the time that looked at all funny. Wary but hopeful, we decided to give it a shot.
I can see that if you’d been expecting something along the lines of Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes’s earlier film, you might find Art School Confidential disappointing. Some reviewers assumed the movie would be a scathing, insightful, in-depth critique of the art world, and then were upset when they found out that it’s not. It is a smart person’s dumb comedy, and if you watch the movie with those expectations, it can be quite enjoyable. The movie more closely resembles The Freshman, the 1990 Matthew Broderick/Marlon Brando comedy about an NYU film student who becomes entangled in organized crime, than it does Ghost World.

The plot of Art School Confidential is standard coming-of-age, with a few twists to add suspense and interest. Jerome (Max Minghella) starts college at an art school he likes mainly because he is attracted to the photo of the nude model in the brochure. The school turns out to be run-down and dilapidated, the other students are uninspiring … but fortunately the model (Sophia Myles) is still around for Jerome to pursue.
The movie relies at times on stereotypes, but it stretches them or at least acknowledges them. Jerome’s cynical classmate Bardo points around the room and labels everyone as one type or another, although he’s not yet sure how to classify Jerome. He even labels himself: the classic cynic. He also introduces Jerome to Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), a bitter, drunken loser who rants about the art world relentlessly.
The older actors in the film are truly the best parts to watch, particularly Broadbent and Malkovich. They’re horrible people — if you want to watch a movie with sweet, sympathetic characters, you should stay far away from Art School Confidential. But they’re fascinating: Malkovich is on the verge of desperation, unable to achieve success with his particular style of art, but still able to lord it over his young students. Broadbent, always a pleasure to watch, plays an amazingly awful character, a loser gone to extremes … you can practically smell him, and it’s not a pretty smell. Steve Buscemi shows up briefly to add to the fun as a gallery owner. And Anjelica Huston’s role is way too small, it’s practically a tease.
The serial-murder aspect of the plot gets somewhat ridiculous: Someone’s been murdering young, female art students on campus, and everyone’s trying to work the situation into their art. Jerome’s roommate Vince (Ethan Suplee) is hard at work on a student film about the murders, obviously influenced a little too much by Quentin Tarantino and Asian crime films. The wrap-up of this storyline doesn’t quite gel — it’s too long and reminiscent of other movies (I can’t say which ones, or I’d spoil the ending). I did like the very last scene of the movie and its ambiguity.
Art School Confidential relies on goofy art projects and art-world attitudes for much of its humor. Students cover themselves with paint and fling themselves at a canvas, and create some truly bizarre (and hilarious) works of art. A former student, now successful, offers cynical advice to the new students. Jerome’s earnestly drawn, lovely portraits of the model he pursues are derided in favor of the “primitive” drawings that frat-boy Jonah submits, which look like the stuff that guys sketch in notebooks in junior high when they’re bored. Sometimes the stereotyping gets a little too obvious and even derogatory, as in the case of Jerome’s fashion-student roommate.
So if you adjust your expectations and are looking for a fun movie with some smart writing and good performances, Art School Confidential should not disappoint.