'Art School Confidential'
Play hooky and skip this depressingly bitter comedy
The wretched experience of watching the film can be summed up in a scene where one character nonchalantly tosses a newspaper over another character's vomit and then resumes his conversation as if nothing happened. Throughout the film, the acclaimed director tosses out one ugly, cynical observation after another, ignoring and occasionally smothering the audience's ability to feel something other than horror.
What's missing is humanity, something that Zwigoff's "Bad Santa" and "Ghost World" -- his previous collaboration with comic book artist/writer Dan Clowes -- managed to sneak in with wickedly funny or compelling results. "Art School," however, seems like a bit of fantasy revenge therapy that many former art, film or writing students will embrace out of spite.
Aspiring artist Jerome (Max Minghella) sees Strathmore Institute as his ticket to the fame, respect and women that his idol Pablo Picasso enjoyed. But he's surrounded by other artists who are as selfish and misguided as he is, including the revered drawing teacher, Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich). Jerome's roommates Matthew (Nick Swardson), who's obsessed with his own closeted homosexuality, and Vince (Ethan Suplee), a wannabe Quentin Tarantino, aren't sympathetic to his plight either.
Only two people actually hang out with poor Jerome. Bardo (Joel David Moore) is a perpetual student who has cynically pegged everyone in the school except for Jerome. Audrey is a pretty artist's model whose smiling civility unwittingly makes her his muse and "girlfriend." In the end, Jerome must resort to a ridiculously extreme action in order to achieve his goals.
Strathmore is populated by stereotypical artists that Bardo conveniently names the Vegan Holy Man, the Angry Lesbian, the Boring Blowhard, the Kiss-Ass, etc. Unfortunately, Zwigoff and Clowes are content to just bluntly point out these little idiosyncrasies, mistaking observation for humorous insight. There's something off-putting in this smugness that sits back and judges without engaging. Zwigoff should take pointers from the Christopher Guest mockumentaries that lovingly poke fun at flawed people, acknowledging they're just disguised extensions of ourselves.
It's not just these supporting characters that are unsympathetic. Unfortunately, Jerome himself lacks any redeeming qualities. While his artistic motivations are admittedly naive, he never seems to learn from his agonizing mistakes and misconceptions. His solution at the end isn't a triumph, but just the piece de resistance to the film's gloomy tone. Even his crush Audrey isn't allowed to be pure. She's only drawn to someone if it looks like he's going to be the next big artist.
Zwigoff is a competent and deliberate director, which makes "Art School" a rather scary look into his mind. The film is like a child who names a doll after a sibling and then proceeds to rip its head off. Perhaps this film can be used for freshman orientation to speed up the process of trampling students' dreams.