More noise than signal

Art School Confidential

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

The second of our Terry Zwigoff / Daniel Clowes joints, Art School Confidential sees Max Minghella’s Jerome go to – where else – an art school, Strathmore, with a self stated aim of becoming the worlds greatest artist. His game plan is thrown off when he falls for Sophia Myles’s Audrey, an art model, and by his fellow students not appreciating his classical depictions as much as the more experimental works, such as from Matt Keeslar’s Jonah, who soon becomes a professional and romantic rival. Oh, and all this plays against a sub plot of an ongoing series of on-campus murders, that, inevitably, will be intersect with Jerome’s life.

It shares more than a few strands of DNA with Ghost World, to be sure – a less than entirely sympathetic protagonist, and a black, tending towards cruel sense of humour, and it certainly has moments where it’s almost as good as Zwigoff’s previous film. However, not all that many of those moments, and the points in-between are, well, not bad, perhaps, but not all that remarkable.

Primarily the difference is in our protagonist. I find Ghost World’s Thora rather more relatably confused – whereas Jerome seems to confuse John Malkovich’s Professor Sandiford’s advice to be his authentic self with just being a prick for little reason, which while set up at the start of the film with advice from Adam Scott’s douchbag art world celeb, is still just being a prick, for little reason.

I’m sure his initial very narrow definition of what constitutes proper art will hit a chord with many, and this is intended in part as a satire of the art world. But Jerome has same mindset for the artist as well as the art, and seems incapable of showing empathy for others, so, in turn we’re not minded to show him any empathy.

But this isn’t dealt with enough for it to be a feature rather than a bug – it’s diet Brechtian, just one calorie, not Brechtian enough. A familiar flavour but none of the sugar rush. The same is true, to an extent, of Ghost World, but it’s somehow less of a concern there – probably because it had better lead actors.

As such, it’s tough to care about the central character’s emotional struggles, which cuts out the heart of the film. There is, however, enough going on around the edges such that this isn’t a complete washout. The supporting cast is pretty good, from the established hands like Malkovich, Angelica Huston, Jim Broadbent, and Steve Buscemi, and also the younger cast like Ethan Suplee and Joel Moore. The slasher sub-plot is not exactly high on the believably index, but makes for a handful of fun scenes towards the end of things which do a bit of papering over the failure of the film’s central thrust.

But, ultimately, it’s not all that remarkable. While planning out this episode I did wonder how this had sailed by me completely, given that I rather like Ghost World, but I now see why. It’s nothing like as awful as its metatomato ratings or its box office flop status would portent, but even with as much generosity as I can muster this isn’t really a film I’d recommend, with the possible exception of those either in or having escaped from art school.