It’s almost fascinating to watch Art School Confidential slowly start coming apart before it finally crashes and burns. Almost fascinating – it’s actually very disappointing to know that the Dan Clowes and Terry Zwigoff, men behind Ghost World (and individually Dan Pussey and Bad Santa), have stumbled so badly with this one.
What sinks Art School is a wrenching change of tone that might have worked on paper but demolishes the film. Max Minghella is Jerome, a suburban boy who comes to a New York City art school mainly because he wants to meet the nude model on the brochure. The school, based on the Pratt Institute, where comic creator Dan Clowes went to school, is stuck in the middle of a ghetto. And what’s worse, there’s been a string of killings on and around campus.
The first half of Art School Confidential is a broad comedy, even by Bad Santa standards. It feels like a Danny Leiner movie, not a Terry Zwigoff film. Jerome’s a fish out of water at art school because he doesn’t buy into the pretentious bullshit. He also has wacky roommates, including a guy so gay he has to be straight and a wannabe filmmaker who is making a movie based on the campus killings. In class Jerome befriends a slackadaisical artist who has been in and out of art school for years and starts up a rivalry with a preppy jock of an artist whose work is so bad everyone thinks it’s brilliant. He also ends up meeting that nude model, who becomes his friend but doesn’t seem interested in going farther.
The wacky comedy slowly drains out, and by the last reel you’re scratching your head at just how this film came to a point where Jerome is about to fling himself off a building as the cops chase him. Seriously, the movie goes there. Again, there’s almost a clinical fascination in watching this happen, like that video of a deaf woman trying to cross the tracks at a commuter rail station and getting creamed by the train. You want to follow these two paths back to see where collision became inevitable, where disaster was finally certain.
Make no mistake, Art School Confidential is a disaster. I’m happy that I didn’t write this review when I first saw the movie, since walking out of the theater I convinced myself that the shoddy second half would grow on me. The first half is very funny, I reasoned, almost in the Animal House vein of deceptively smart dumb comedy. There’s no way that the second half could be as bad as I thought it was.
But reflection has proved that yes, the film goes places it never should, and it goes there badly. Could the film have succeeded under different circumstances? Max Minghella is a very bland Jerome; the character is passive for the first half of the film and needed to be played by someone with built-in charisma. It’s how Zwigoff made Ghost World work, by casting magnetic leads in the roles of disaffected, passive outsiders. By the time Jerome starts getting more active as a character you don’t care about him, and when his story starts getting really dark he’s unpleasant.
There are a couple of memorable guest turns – John Malkovich is great as the prissy, bitter teacher. Ethan Suplee remains squarely within the territory that he operates best as the killing-obsessed roommate. And Jim Broadbent is fantastic as the shattered, alcoholic artist who Jerome turns to when things get dark. What’s shocking is the 180 on female characters from Ghost World – the women in Art School Confidential are nothings, barely worth mentioning.
The thematic elements of Art School Confidential – what is art, what is selling out – are interesting and solid, and anyone who has been to an art school or knows an art student will find that much of the parody is spot on. But Art School Confidential is a film with nowhere to go, and it spends an hour getting there.