Sometimes it seems like Terry Zwigoff, the director of Art School Confidential, wants the movie to be his A Modest Proposal for artists. Instead, he succeeds only in being Bill O'Reilly for People in Black Turtlenecks.
There is this thing that O'Reilly does, where people call in with a point about factual errors, or a dissenting opinion, and he starts frothing and gesticulating and generally turns into some sort of whirling Dervish, attacking the person who has a contrary thought via sheer volume and control of the phone line. Zwigoff does the same thing here, except to what he views as the institutionalized art world.
The movie is about a young man, Jerome (Max Minghella), arriving at the Strathmore Art School in New York City after high school. There he meets a cavalcade of cliches -- the suck-up, the artiste, the older student, etc. -- a fact pointed out quite loudly by one of his classmates. Here's a basic rule about satire: Even if the author of a piece is aware of the fact he is filling his work with stereotypes, they still must be used effectively, especially if the whole point is to criticize people like them. I will be generous and say that this is when the movie starts falling apart, despite the fact my very first note about "easy, predictable humor" was written around the five-minute mark.
Jerome grows disenchanted as his own competent, realistic drawings are ignored in favor of more abstract pieces or, most gallingly, grade-school quality renderings of tanks and cars done by a newcomer named Jonah (Matt Keeslar), who is seen as "forgetting what painting is" in order to create his work. When Jerome protests, he is attacked from all sides, called an asshole, and shunned. We are bombarded with example after example of hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness, and we are asked to side with the unlikable Jerome without any real justification. We are not allowed to entertain the possibility that there is good art out there unlike Jerome's.
As a further insult, Jerome's object of empty, superficial desire and subject of most of his drawings, the nude model Audrey (Sophia Myles), falls for Jonah. I say "empty" simply because he becomes infatuated with her after a sighting of her walking across campus and, of course, a posing session, after which he draws many Kate-Winslet-in-Titanic-style nudes of her. Jerome's film-maker roommate (Ethan Suplee) initiates a plan to get Jerome to lose his virginity so he does not waste his time chasing "prime real estate."
All the while, someone called the Strathmore Strangler is killing people near the campus, and the police are hassling the artists about it because they, in the cops' eyes, are freaks. Of course, the officers, or "brownshirts", as a gallery owner calls them, are donut-eating homophobes with emasculating wives.
In the last two paragraphs, I have described a romantic comedy, a teen sex romp, and a thriller. These plots do not gel at all. But, once again, Zwigoff gives us a moment where he implies he is aware of that, when Suplee's filmmaker says something about "cramming in a love story because that sells tickets."
As we approach the end of the movie, bored and listless and thinking up grocery lists, this sort of clumsy satire is foisted on us again and again. In one of the few funny moments in the film, we see Jerome's parents, through a swinging door, celebrating the news that he finally has a girlfriend for the first time. Sure, it's a bit easy, but worth a chuckle. One that's quickly silenced by his sister saying, "We always thought you were a homo."
We know! Despite what Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes (who very loosely adapted his three-page comic of the same name) think, we are not incapable of figuring this out. We are continually confronted with the obvious and over-explained. Are we meant to be shocked by the completely unheard of idea that the art world is vicious and masturbatory? Is this news? That art is pretty much like every other field that involves more than two humans -- full of blowhards and self-congratulation?
At least, cynics like me aren't surprised. Which is part of why this movie is such a disappointment to me. I enjoy Clowes' and Zwigoff's work, including their prior collaboration on Ghost World, also an adaptation of a Clowes comic. And sure, Clowes' misanthropy can be wearing at times, but I can see what he's saying.
Here's what you do. Throw in a DVD of Ghost World and find the scene where Ileanna Douglas' spacey art-teacher, in the process of trying to hug everyone in class, knocks over a student project that's nothing more than Tinkertoys while Enid, our protagonist, is slowly backing away through the group to avoid the hug. It is a moment of well-characterized, subtle humor.
I am going to pretend that Art School Confidential was that scene on repeat for an hour, instead of this exercise in using a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito while being told, repeatedly and condescendingly, that it's a flyswatter.