Holy Fucking Shit
Art School Movie Actually More Miserable Than Art School Students
Written by comics kingpin Daniel Clowes and directed by Terry Zwigoff, Art School Confidential isn’t just a cruel, arrogant, God-awful movie—or even merely a feature-length hissy fit. It’s a glimpse into the very specific, tremendously unpleasant pathologies particular to the work of both writer and director. The turgidly told tale of an art school freshman named Jerome (Max Minghella, alternately cow-eyed, robotic, or both), it’s full to bursting with the misogyny and misanthropy that threatened to capsize Zwigoff’s Ghost World—also based on a Clowes comic—and Bad Santa. But crucially absent is the balancing sweetness at the curmudgeonly heart of both movies. Living through this bilious folly isn’t akin to enjoying an indie version of delicious trash like Showgirls. It’s more like submerging one’s head into an unflushed latrine, a description that we suspect Clowes and Zwigoff would relish.
Tone-wise, Art School is divided into two parts. The first, less loathsome section features slacker asshole Bardo (Joel Moore) guiding Jerome through an extended piss take on the population of Strathmore Art School and life in general. (Surprise: It sucks.)
Gays fare poorly, with many laughless pokes at a way-swishy student who doesn’t know he’s queer, and more for a pretentious professor (John Malkovich), who is also a sexual predator. But the most poisoned barbs are directed at women—in particular, a hot black feminist, Jewish nympho, insane goth girl, and foxy bitch dyke. And in one scene, a middle-aged male nude model sticks his dick in the face of a female student whose offense is unclear. Some of this shtick may have worked as single-panel jokes in Clowes’ 2-D comic; with actual humans, not so much. Or at all, really.
In case it sounds like the filmmakers have an issue with queers and women, they also roast male trust-fund hippies and that terrible threat to society—guys who read Art Forum. Zwigoff, who first earned his stripes directing the documentary Crumb, also lacerates the ambitions of Vince (Ethan Suplee), an aspiring feature filmmaker who steals his ideas from real life. Self-satire? A dis on young career-obsessed filmmakers? The latter feels more likely, and would have been funny if Vince didn’t feel imported from one of Kevin Smith’s later, less funny movies.
The arrival of two new characters into Jerome’s life signals the juncture at which Art School stops being even marginally amusing and devolves into seemingly bottomless vitriol. Sure, college students can be insufferably full of themselves, but from the ire spilled on these kids, you’d think they were terrorists or people who talk in the theater.
Anyway—Jerome meets Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), a miserable, self-righteous, alcoholic artist whose only advice is to learn to suck cock. Jimmy’s combination of sloth, dissolution, rage, and refusal to show his work—paintings of tortured women—are argued to be arbiters of integrity. Like, whatever.
Then there’s Jerome’s love interest/muse, art model Audrey (Sophia Myles), a serious ringer for Scarlett Johansson, right down to the low, underinflected burr of a voice, generous curves, and blunt-cut blond hair. As a character, Audrey is just another Clowes assembly-line fantasy: a hot teen cynic who wears long coats, short clinging skirts, and Doc Martens—and hates things.
Much nonsense follows as Jerome’s desire for Audrey leads to his absolute corruption, ending with the joke of accidental mass homicide as fast track to art-world fame—which was almost funny six years ago in Cecil B. Demented, a movie these filmmakers would abhor, because John Waters admires the naive idealism of his young misanthropes.
It’s all just so grueling. As a filmmaker, Zwigoff has gone from indifferent about aesthetic niceties to contemptuous about such piddling matters. Scenes drag on and on and on, with no movement or inflection, as if the cameraperson had been beaned with a ball-peen hammer. The cast—including plot-irrelevant cameos by Anjelica Huston as a teacher and Steve Buscemi as a jerk coffee-shop owner—are as good as you can expect of people stuck playing targets of their director and writer’s bile. You leave the theater feeling both slimed and mystified why, at some point in the godforsaken venture, grownups hadn’t staged some sort of cinematic intervention, sparing Art School Confidential’s makers the shame of this uncontrolled, infantile indulgence on their résumés.