Friday, May 26, 2006

Laugh away, laughing boy!

Any film that has a deliberately unlikeable lead will probably be met with a negative respose. So while Art School Confidential is a letdown in some ways, I still admire writer Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff for inviting such scorn. The film is a scathing attack on the often acolytic, unispired nature of any institution that claims to teach an art, and it's absolutely merciless to those who buy into the idea that they can learn how to be "the greatest artist of the twenty-first century." So while the film is often aimless, I still found myself laughing loudly at its moments of insight.

Jerome (Max Minghella) has just started his first semester at the prestigious Strathmore Art Institute. Jerome quickly falls in love with Audrey (Sophia Myles), a model in one of his classes, and becomes determined to win her affections through his art. But Jerome is soon adrift in a sea of pretension and self-importance, with little guidance coming from his professors, like the pompous Professor Sandford (John Malkovich), who specializes in triangles ("I was one of the first"), or peers like his blowhard roomate Vince (Ethan Suplee) a film student making a hyperbolic movie based on a real-life serial killer prowling the campus. Jerome's only real friend is Jimmy (Jim Broadbent, brilliant), an aging Strathmore graduate who spends his days getting drunk in a tiny apartment and bitterly condemning the rest of humanity.

Zwigoff and Clowes are merciless in their too-true depiction of various art school types - fellow student Bardo (Joel Moore) identifies such familiar characters as the "vegan holy man" and the "beat girl" early on - yet the satire would ring hollow if it weren't for their subtler and more brutal critique on their central character. Jerome repeatedly cites Picasso as his favorite artist, yet he doesn't seem to know much of anything about the artist. He's also quick to emulate others, repeating one of Jimmy's rants in a class, yet he doesn't seem to have many ideas of his own. Much of the film is made up of Jerome looking soulfully at Audrey from across the room, or morosely wandering down streets at night. It's possible that much of the negative response to Art School Confidential is tied into the protagonist's hollowness, but I think that's exactly what Zwigoff and Clowes are going for; Jerome has ambition, but it's vague and passive. The irony is that he's a decent painter, better than most of his fellow students. But while he's right to question their pretensions, he doesn't really have anything to say either. He's a total cipher, and despite his declarations of love for Sophie, his emotional range doesn't really extend beyond horniness and self-pity. He has a lot of growing up to do.

The film enters into shades of Argento and Hitchcock halfway through, and I found that I actually liked this shift quite a bit in terms of what it reveals about the characters. My disappointment with the film derives more from the sense that Zwigoff and Clowes aren't always on the same page. While their humor is wonderfully dry and understated, sometimes the film simply becomes vague and aimless. Many scenes trail off rather than arriving anywhere, and several characters, like Anjelica Huston's compassionate professor Sophie and Steve Buscemi's gallery owner Broadway Bob, could have been explored more fully. The film also has a weird, vagulely condescending attitude towards its gay characters; I'm not really sure what the joke is, and the parts that are evident are sort of familiar and below both the writer and director. When Art School Confidential works, such as the Thanksgiving scene where Jerome receives well-intentioned but terrible advice from his clueless family, it works wonderfully. And both Minghella and Myles are great. But after Ghost World, which worked not only as razor-sharp satire but as a bittersweet exploration of misfit malaise, it is something of a letdown.

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