Reuniting Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes, Art School Confidential mixes the conventional ‘boy in school who needs to find himself’ story with what is meant to be a withering satire of the art circuit. What Daniel Clowes has to say however had already been said long ago by Tom Wolfe back in the seventies when he wrote the The Painted Word and by numberless outside observers since then. The satire is sometimes wickedly pointed and other times simply grotesque caricature, but it’s never subtle and aside from Anjelica Huston’s unnamed history art teacher who is attempting to convey the continuity of art to students filled with postmodern relativism and sophistry, none of the instructors have anything worthwhile to offer. The professors are either shallow careerists or depressed burnouts and the students are crude stereotypes right down to Jerome’s fashion major roommate who is in the closet, despite being enough of a cliche to qualify for a role on Will and Grace.
Max Minghella’s Jerome is an idealistic student who falls in love with Sophia Myles’ Audrey based on a nude painting of her in the Swarthmore catalog. When he arrives at Swarthmore he instead sees corruption, decay and a senseless curriculum that awards all students with A’s but in which career advancement depends on catching a trend. Jerome’s own character sketches are disdained in favor of another student’s crude sketches of cars and spacemen. While Malkovitch’s Professor Sandiford alternately spends class time talking to his agent, demonstrating his contempt for the students and trying to seduce Jerome. Jerome frantically struggles to impress Audrey and win a career for himself as an artist by “experimenting” with a variety of modernistic styles, until he stumbles on the artwork of the Swarthmore Strangler and takes credit for it, setting off an implausible and bitterly satirical ending.
While Art School Confidential is centered on Jerome, the movie is too busy using him to make pointed criticisms of the professors and other students to ever have Jerome realize that he needs to grow up himself. Jerome is not a true character, only the focus for Art School Confidential’s potshots at the art world. The film makes much of Jerome’s infatuation with Audrey, but that infatuation is at least partially a virgin’s idealized infatuation and his paintings of Audrey are not the wonderful works of art that the movie would like us to believe. The large canvas in particular that Audrey rescues from the trash in a climactic scene is actually pretty bad. Jerome’s drawings and paintings are only good in comparison to the crude modernism of the other students, on their own they only qualify him for a career in commercial art. In only his first semester, Jerome has set his ambitions ridiculously high and his depression and dark phase are hard to sympathize with. But it’s the Swarthmore Strangler story that is the true kiss of death for the movie, Jerome’s arrest is to Art School Confidential what Steve Buscemi’s Seymour getting in bed with Thora Birch’s Enid was in Ghost World, the death blow for a flailing movie that destroys the last shreds of its credibility. With its conclusion Art School Confidential discards the charade that it is a movie about people and defaults to where its heart lay all along, to crude satire. The final statements about the shallow trendiness of the art world are funny but they’re also soulless because much as in modern art, character and story have been sacrificed for the sake of hammering home a graceless point.
Where Clowes’ Ghost World made the clumsy but heartfelt transition to the screen under Terry Zwigoff, with Art School Confidential Clowes’ stark black and white world stumbles onto the screen and loses much of its narrative and structure in the process. Stocked with two dimensional characters and burdened with an implausible plot and a self-indulgent love story, Art School Confidential is as juvenile as the paintings of its protagonist. Early on in the classroom of John Malkovich’s Professor Sandiford, Jerome criticizes another student’s slashing modernist self-portrait which the rest of the class defend based on the supremacy of self-expression over the discipline of structure. This is a criticism at the heart of Clowes’ and Zwigoff’s critique of how art is viewed today, yet Art School Confidential is a movie that is more about self-expression absent the discipline of structure. In making a movie critiquing a structureless art world that has forgotten what it takes to make a painting, Zwigoff forgot what it takes to make a movie.