Few things are more mystifying to outsiders than the world of modern art. Which of course makes it the perfect backdrop for a Terry Zwigoff
film. Where else is eccentricity, flamboyance, and pretension considered normal? And who’s more alienated and misunderstood than an art student rejected by his art school classmates, who are, quite naturally, alienated and misunderstood themselves? Art School Confidential, Zwigoff’s latest, mines this territory for humor and poignancy, raising questions about the nature of art and alienation.
As in Zwigoff’s previous films, which include Crumb, Ghost World, and Bad Santa, Art School’s hero is far from heroic. Played by Max Minghella
, with his dark eyes and brooding bushy brows, Jerome Platz is a young art student whose primary aspiration is to be the greatest artist of the 21st century, the next Picasso. His secondary concern — to find an emotional, intellectual, erotic connection with a woman — proves even more ambitious since he feels only one girl, luminous art model Audrey (Sophia Myles
), is worthy of his attention. Article continues below
The trouble is, after an initial connection with Jerome, Audrey shifts her attention to another freshman painter, the hunky Jonah, whose simple, innocent paintings have turned him into something of a campus hero. In order to win Audrey back, Jerome asks for the help of Jimmy (Jim Broadbent
), a bitter, reclusive, alcoholic painter. Broadbent’s performance is the film’s strongest, which is saying something in a film packed with celebrated actors. His Jimmy is sensitive and fearsome, wise, and terrible — all at once. At several points in the film, during fits of artistic pique, Jimmy’s eyes flash with anger and fix on Jerome — and the misery of a rotten, wasted life paralyzes both Jerome and the audience. The jolting power of these moments, of Broadbent’s poisonous eyes, makes his turn a thing to behold.
Jerome’s classmates and instructors at the Strathmore Institute figure prominently in the film’s wry exploration of what makes good art good, and what makes the truest art timeless. Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich
) is a failed painter who is unable to see Jerome’s talent and potential but wouldn’t mind sleeping with him. Jerome’s roommate Vince (Ethan Suplee
, of TV's My Name Is Earl) is a fast-talking, sexually obsessed film student. And Jerome’s friend Bardo is a talentless, wayward womanizer who doesn’t belong in art school. Several heavyweight actors play the bit parts that round out the cast, including Anjelica Huston
as a sage art history professor, Steve Buscemi
as a freewheeling gallery owner, and Michael Lerner as a greedy art dealer.
Art School marks Zwigoff’s second collaboration with Daniel Clowes, who wrote both the screenplay and the graphic novel on which it was based. Their first collaboration, the 2001 film Ghost World, earned them an avalanche of critical praise and an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. However, Art School isn’t as good as Ghost World, despite their abundant similarities. The connection between the central characters in Ghost World, Thora Birch’s Enid and Buscemi’s Seymour, was fascinating, odd, and easily understood. Jerome and Audrey’s relationship, meanwhile, never takes shape, partly because Audrey’s character is completely lifeless. Zwigoff and Clowes never get around to showing us who she is or what she wants. It’s never clear why she would turn her back on Jerome to pursue Jonah when she knows better than anyone that Jerome is the real talent.
Such problems keep Art School from the heights of achievement of Ghost World and Crumb, but don’t keep it from being a provocative, entertaining movie. Art School will go down as a minor work from the maker of off-kilter gems.