Art School Confidential

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Art School Confidential

(Above [L-R]: John Malkovich as Professor Sandiford, Max Minghella as Jerome. Photo by Suzanne Hanover, courtesy of Sony Picture Classics, all rights reserved.)

Just For Laughs: Art-school spoof from Ghost World creators sacrifices characters for broad humor

Director: Terry Zwigoff
Writer: Daniel Clowes
Cinematography: Jamie Anderson
Starring: Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, John Malkovich
Studio info: Sony Pictures Classics, 102 mins.

Terry Zwigoff may be the most comic-inspired filmmaker working today.

His films include a documentary about cartoonist Robert Crumb, an adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World comic book, and the very dark, very funny comedy Bad Santa, a story written for the screen even though its low-brow humor would feel right at home in a graphic novel.

Paper and celluloid seem radically different, but the two art forms have a lot in common. Comics may lack movement, but they rely heavily on movie-style editing to tell their stories in a small number of essential “shots.” And the influence goes both ways. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has noticed the remarkable similarity between the visual grammar of comic strips and Hitchcock’s masterpiece Rear Window, in which the camera famously gazes across a courtyard into various apartments, panning to follow the people inside like eyes scanning the Sunday funnies. Zwigoff even seemed to pick up the idea for the title sequence of Ghost World, his camera gliding quickly past neighborhood windows before settling on the main characters.

The visual harmony between film and comics may explain how movies like Sin City and The Matrix take root in both media, but it only partially explains how Zwigoff has leapt so easily from documentaries to narrative features and Clowes from comics to film. While Zwigoff captures the look of Clowes’ pages, what’s distinctive about both their bodies of work is how well they handle their offbeat characters. Seymour in Ghost World obsesses over old blues recordings, but the movie treats him with great affection, and no wonder: Zwigoff himself is the same kind of collector. Likewise, each of the budding artists in Clowes’ work clearly reflects himself.

Zwigoff and Clowes join forces once more for Art School Confidential, which feels like an extension of the art-class spoof in Ghost World. Recent high-school graduate Jerome (Max Minghella) enrolls in a small arts college to chase his dream of being a serious painter, but there he finds pretentious, marginally talented students, a self-absorbed, emotionally vacant instructor and a roommate who’s aggressively prepping for a Hollywood career. Plus, a beautiful girl and a murderer are roaming the campus, keeping things interesting.

Unfortunately, the tender observations Zwigoff and Clowes specialize in are largely missing from Art School Confidential, which spends its energy on the zany people who’d usually pepper the edges of their films. What makes Ghost World so enjoyable is the way it balances its dynamic relationships. Enid, Rebecca and Seymour may feel isolated, but they have each other, or at least that’s the movie’s source of hope. The gentle, misunderstood student at the center of Art School Confidential has no worthy foil. Jerome’s infatuation with a popular model seems like a fantasy instead of a relationship. His nearest kindred spirit is a cynical, drunken artist—vividly played by Jim Broadbent, bug-eyed and disheveled, as if he were sketched by jittery hands—but their connection is so tenuous that Jerome is effectively our only anchor in a world of cretins, dead ends and easy jokes.

I like the movie’s strange sense of humor and even the broad satire—the murderer’s handiwork inevitably finds its way into the students’ art—and I like how the story gives us ample time to consider who the strangler might be. (Enid would say, OMG, I bet that guy’s a serial killer! And this time she might be right.) But even Bad Santa had realistic hopes for human connection somewhere in its wicked heart. Without that, surprisingly, this string of jokes just isn’t as funny. Art School Confidential isn’t a disaster, but it’s a lightweight riff on familiar themes and, I hope, a minor dip in the usually more compelling work from Zwigoff and Clowes.

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