Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Director Report Card: Terry Zwigoff (2006)

5. Art School Confidential

After the mainstream success of “Bad Santa,” Terry Zwigoff returned to a previous source of inspiration. The director decided to re-team with Daniel Clowes, the comic book writer/artist behind “Ghost World.” Together, they would expand one of Clowes’ shorter works, “Art School Confidential,” into a feature film. The resulting film did not recreate “Ghost World’s” cult popularity. “Art School Confidential” did poorly at the box office and received mostly negative reviews. Zwigoff hasn’t directed another movie since.

Ever since he was young, Jerome has liked to draw. This has often been his sole defense against a world that mocks and rejects him. After high school, Jerome is accepted into Strathmore University, an art college of minor renown. However, Jerome finds difficulty integrating himself at Strathmore. His traditional artwork isn’t well received by his artsy fartsy class mates and professors. He has trouble getting the attention of Audrey, the object of his affection. Jerome’s troubles are multiplied when he’s caught up with the serial killer who is currently strangling people across the campus.

Despite the Clowes connection, “Art School Confidential” has more in common with Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa” then “Ghost World.” As in the director’s holiday comedy, the film is characterized by a mean-spirited, cynical tone. “Art School Confidential” bluntly gets at the motivation behind every artistic endeavor. In the first scene, Jerome as a young boy is beaten up by a pair of bullies. Afterwards, he takes out his frustration by drawing a picture mocking his attackers. As a teenager, Jerome attempts to gain a crush’s attention with an illustration. The movie flatly states this already apparent theme later on: Most art is motivated by frustration or horniness. It’s a brutally honest but not exactly deep reading of the artistic mind.

On the surface, “Art School Confidential” seems like a feature length version of the art school scenes in “Ghost World.” This is, sadly, a fairly accurate description. In “Ghost World,” Enid’s traditional pencil drawings were dismissed in favor of abstract, pretentious work. In “Art School Confidential,” Jerome’s similarly themed drawings are ignored or actively mocked by his teachers and classmates. Instead, sketchy or nonsensical artwork is praised. An amateurish and childish scribbles of another student – actually an undercover cop with no artistic background – becomes the talk of the campus. His lack of skill is seen as an intentional subversive of artistic norms. The artistic community ignores real skill in favor of hogwash. This hypocrisy is what the majority of the film is built upon. “Art School Confidential” has nothing else to say beyond this and repeats this point endlessly.

A big difference between “Ghost World” and “Art School Confidential” is its main character. Enid had her rough edges and was deeply unsympathetic at times. However, the viewer ultimately related to and liked her. Jerome, meanwhile, is not so personable. He’s actively rude to his classmates, laughing at and brutally criticizing other’s work. After the many hardships visited upon him, Jerome develops a nihilistic streak. He begins to curse the world. He’s a hateful sad sack, whose frustrations cause him to act like an asshole to everyone around him. Max Minghella, an actor of minor renown, cannot rise above his character’s innate prickliness. That leaves the audience without a safe harbor in an often off-putting film. 

Jerome is also, pointedly, a virgin. His quest to get laid and find love leads him to Sophia Myles’ Audrey. He immediately puts the girl on a pedestal, awkwardly attempting to win her heart. The film feeds into the narrative of the frustrated nerd jilted by the object of his affection too easily. Soon, it appears that Audrey has another boyfriend, which Jerome witnesses, causing him to spiral into despair. The biggest problem is that Audrey is barely a character. The film attempts to flesh her out, by featuring a former female lover. Sophia Myles’ performance is slightly on the flat side. As lovely as she is, it’s hard to imagine anyone being as obsessed with her as Jerome is.

“Art School Confidential” is, nominally, a comedy. About half way through, “Art School Confidential” veers wildly towards depression, becoming a dark film with few laughs to be had. This is at odds with its first half, which features several rather broad sequences. Jerome’s attempts to get laid puts him contact with a screaming beatnik chick and a girl who plays with stuffed animals. A group of illustrators in a live modeling class are instead presented with a saggy, unattractive man. The film seems to delight in showing his floppy penis. Later, a montage shows student preparing projects, which involves someone taking photos of his ball sack or leaping, nude, onto a canvas. One of Jerome’s roommates is an obviously closeted man. By the end, he’s comfortable with his sexuality, sleeping with a rather flamboyant partner. This subplot is especially useless. These scenes rarely get laughs and create an overly cartoonish tone. It also makes the film’s later lurch towards seriousness harder to swallow.

Perhaps realizing that sexual and artistic frustration wasn’t enough to build a film upon, “Art School Confidential” also features a bizarre subplot about a serial killer on campus. This storyline obviously seems like a last minute addition to the script, as it barely connects with the other plot elements. The sequences of people being strangled, often filmed from a first person perspective, seemingly belong to a different movie. In an attempt to tie this stuff in with the story proper, a cop goes undercover as a student. Played by Matt Keesler, of “The Middleman” fame, Jonah’s story arc is easy to predict. He gets overly invested in the art world, distracting from his actual mission. Weirdly, the scenes of his personal life are scripted with the same exaggerated, mean-spirited attitude as the art school scenes. Over all, the entire serial killer subplot is badly implemented into the film.

“Ghost World” mostly lacked the interest in deviant sexuality that has cropped up throughout Terry Zwigoff’s other films. Despite being closer in tone to “Ghost World” then “Crumb,” “Art School Confidential” also features some forced-in, nasty weirdness. One of Jerome’s few friends is Bardo, an abrasive jerk played by Joel Moore. Bardo delights in judging and categorizing others. He acts as off-putting as possible. Through his friendship, Jerome meets Jimmy. An alcoholic, Jimmy lives in a seedy apartment. He lounges in a bathrobe and doesn’t mind when people vomit on his floor. Jimmy is also the campus strangler, something the film is too eager to reveal. As off-putting as these elements are, Jim Broadbent’s performance as Jimmy is genuinely unnerving. The sadistic gleam in Broadbent’s eyes make the character quite frightening.

“Art School Confidential” does have a cast peppered with notable names. John Malkovich plays Professor Sandiford, Jerome’s primary art teacher. The character is poorly scripted, especially in a sequence that implies he’s hitting on Jerome. Like everyone else, he’s a shallow asshole. Malkovich, however, brings a coldly sardonic element to the part that amuses. Also present is Steve Buscemi as Broadway Bob, the owner of a local coffee shop/art gallery. Buscemi brings his expected energy and charisma to the minor part, enlivening his few scenes. Angelica Huston has even fewer scenes as another professor. However, a moment when she gives Jerome an encouraging speech is one of the film’s few hopeful spots.

Art majors aren’t the movie’s only target. It also makes fun of film majors. Jerome’s other roommate is Ethan Suplee’s Vince. An immense blowhard, Vince is introduced during a profane phone conversation. Vince is currently making a film about the campus strangler. His screenplay is full of gangsta’ style profanity. He inserts a love story, in order to appeal to women. When his actress is disgusted by the script, he adds a bunch of artsy sequence to appease her. This, in turn, confounds Vince’s uncle, his film’s primary financier. “Art School Confidential’s” criticism of young filmmakers is as shallow as its potshots at the art scene.

Eventually, Zwigoff’s film reaches some sort of point. Jerome takes other’s advice but is criticized. He follows Jonah’s lead but his work is dismissed. He steals the paintings of the serial killer, presenting them as his own. His colleagues aren’t impressed by this either and he ends up in jail for it. Once imprisoned, Jerome goes back to following his own creative voice and finally finds happiness. (Despite his infamy bringing him fame and attention.) Once you push aside all the obnoxious, petty nitpicks at art school, the film’s theme seems to be “Be yourself!” Which is not especially compelling.

After “Art School Confidential” failed to find an audience, Terry Zwigoff’s reaction matched the film’s tone. Instead of addressing the movie’s obvious flaws, he threw disparagement on other movies. This seems to suggests that the film’s very superficial and childish condemnation of art scene hypocrisies were totally sincere. An unlikable main character, a mean spirited tone, and a scrambled script makes “Art School Confidential” an unpleasant watch. Only a handful of notable performances makes the film worth seeking out. Perhaps if Zwigoff or Clowe were more willing to address the story’s concept, the result would’ve been more interesting. As it is, “Art School Confidential” is Zwigoff’s weakest film, an unsure and disagreeable misfire. [Grade: C]

Terry Zwigoff hasn't made a film since "Art School Confidential's" poor reception. Ocassionally, his name has resurfaced. Back in 2013, he was linked with two new projects. The first of which, "Justice for Al," was a legal tinged comedy meant to star Fred Armisen. The second was "Lost Melody," a dark comedy that would've starred Nicolas Cage. Can you imagine what that collabreation might've looked like? Obviously, neither of this films were made. It seems Zwigoff has difficulty securing funding but I hope, and certainly find it likely, that he will direct another movie someday. Until then, we'll always have "Ghost World."

Thus concludes the Terry Zwigoff Director Report Card. Thanks for reading. I'll be back tomorrow with more stuff.

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