Art School Confidential

Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 05/21/06 11:44:10

"Did this guy attend the same classes I did?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

As a former art student, I have to compliment writer-cartoonist Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zygoff for accurately recounting all of the pretentiousness and folly that a person encounters in art classes or college in general. “Art School Confidential” is often hysterically funny because its depiction of life in these institutions isn’t much of an exaggeration.

In “Art School Confidential” and in real life, you’re guaranteed to encounter students who are more interested in spouting their ideologies instead of actually learning how to draw, paint or sculpt. As a result, half-hearted scribbles that a chimp could outdo are praised for their “originality,” even when the mental process behind the work is as shallow as it appears.

Yes, Picasso and Matisse painted child-like work, but that’s because they knew the rules before they broke them.

To be fair to my instructors, one actually gave me valuable advice that served me well when I started to design brochures professionally. Clowes was apparently not that lucky.

Wandering into this world is a skilled but naïve lad named Jerome Platz (nicely played by Max Minghella). Since he was a child, Jerome has reveled in drawing and has often used his sketches to get back at the bullies who make his life miserable.

As an adult, he hopes his time at Strathmore Art School will give him the friends he wants and the acclaim he craves.

He’ll have to keep searching. His main instructor, the smug but burned out (John Malkovich), tells Jerome to branch out even though he himself does nothing but paint triangles.

His classmates include a fellow named Bardo (Joel David Moore) who quits his studies before he ever gets near completing a term and people who can be typed as “an angry lesbian,” “a kiss-ass” and “a bored housewife.”

The prospects for a Strathmore campus grad are pretty grim. One bitter alumnus named Jim (Jim Broadbent) has only a trail of empty booze bottles and eerie paintings to show for his education.

Because Clowes and Zygoff have so much fun and generate so much merriment at the expense of faulty education, it’s unfortunate that “Art School Confidential” feels somewhat hollow when it’s through.

To write the script, Clowes reworked a four-page comic that recalled his own experiences at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. The strip, which appears in his anthology Twentieth Century Eightball, recalled how his experiences were often memorable but useless in his later successful career as a cartoonist. It’s probably the funniest thing he’s done yet.

Clowes’ ear for dialogue is as finely developed as his illustration skills. When one student sees a gruesome painting, she disgustedly announces, “That’s so September 10th!” If you’ve ever heard anyone discuss a piece of art or literature without having a clue about its actual content, you’ll get a kick out of many of the lines you’ll hear in “Art School Confidential.”

Some of the biggest laughs come from how the students react to a jock-ish student (Matt Keeslar) whose mediocre paintings draw so much praise that even Jerome, who is far more talented, feels compelled to imitate.

In their previous collaboration “Ghost World,” Zygoff and Clowes were able to effortlessly balance scathing satire and a genuine compassion for their characters. In “Art School Confidential,” Jerome’s quest for legitimacy and acceptance isn’t quite as compelling. Jerome’s unrequited romance with a nude model (Sophia Miles) has some choice moments, but feels a bit undercooked. The storyline, while containing a great plot twist, isn’t as well thought out as the atmosphere of the school.

Anyone who has ever read Clowes’ graphic novels know he has a dense and vivid imagination. There’s so much to mock or examine in “Art School Confidential” that it feels as if Clowes and Zygoff should have abandoned the plot and gotten deeper into the characters and the absurd world of the school.

That said, Zygoff and Clowes do get the most out of their first-rate cast and prove that hollow laughs are far superior to no laughs at all.

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