Some filmmakers have a sophomore slump. Terry Zwigoff has a senior slump. After starting very strong with Crumb and Ghost World, Zwigoff aimed low with Bad Santa and now Art School Confidential.
R for language, nudity, a scene of violence
The screenplay (by Daniel Clowes, based on his comic book) is b-movie quality. The setting is a prep school, complete with all the stereotypes: losers, yuppies, granolas and skanks. There’s even a jock at this art school. Character depth is completely lacking. In fact, we are introduced to the secondary characters by having someone recite what stereotype they fit, as they file into the room. Yes, it really is that shallow.
The main character Jerome (Max Minghella) doesn’t fare much better. He’s a lump of clay, ready to be molded into an artistic genius. That also means he doesn’t have much of a personality. He’s the bland hero around whom the more colorful characters orbit. His two roomates are majors in film and fashion, respectively. Neither deviates from the stereotype one iota. Only Jerome’s best friend Bardo (Joel Moore) is an interesting character. He’s a perennial student, changing his major in time to start school again the next semester and watch the new parade of stereotypes. His laid-back attitude is a nice contrast to the performance anxiety of the rest of the entire school.
Driving the action are two plots, both tired and contrived. First, there is a “Strathmore Strangler” on the loose. Second, there is an end-of-semester competition to see which student will get a one-man show at the prestigious coffeehouse.
The plot and characters are so shallow that one wonders whether Zwigoff and screenwriter Daniel Clowes aren’t doing it deliberately in an ironic post-modern riff on the high-school b-movie. If so, what they’ve made is indistinguishable from actual bad cinema; it is actually bad cinema.
What’s supposed to be funny is a tweaking of all the art-school types. Jerome’s classmates like bad art precisely because of how bad it is, while being hostile to his own virtuosity precisely because it shows technical accomplishment. The filmmaker roommate wants to be Quentin Tarantino; the fashion designer is the last to realize that he’s gay. The teachers fight for position in the pecking order, not realizing that even at the top, they are still losers. There’s some fun to be had, in a cynical sort of way, but it still boils down to treating people as types, and then laughing at those types. There’s nothing clever or original in these laughs, assuming you even find any laughs.
Art School Confidential has the makings of a mediocre, after-school sitcom. In that milieu, it might almost work. A sitcom would give us time to explore all the foibles of the various types. It would give us time to follow the petty backstabbing that goes on among the students and faculty. But as a two-hour movie, there is too much going on, and it’s just too silly to have any real substance.
I will admit that I laughed out loud two or three times. One of the jokes was genuinely funny: Jerome asks his teacher (John Malkovich) about his distinctive style — the style it took him 30 years to perfect; Malkovich replies by saying he was “one of the first” to use that signature style. But mostly, Art School Confidential is 102 minutes that you can’t get back.