3 stars (out of four)
A match made in a particularly clammy suburb of heaven, director Terry Zwigoff and screenwriter Daniel Clowes are masters of a specific worldview: that of daily life as a series of low-key interpersonal train wrecks, plus the occasional, baleful crush.
"Ghost World" (2001), taken from Clowes' graphic novel and directed by Zwigoff, made you believe that graphic novels really could be made into memorable movies. I suppose it's unfair to think about "Ghost World" in relation to the bloodthirsty vengeance and obsessively literal-minded comic-book compositions of "Road to Perdition" or "Sin City" or "V for Vendetta," three of the best-known (and biggest-budgeted) movies made from graphic novels. But those three share common traits, and they're not fruitful ones. Even in adolescent fantasy terms, "Perdition," "Sin" and "Vendetta" didn't have enough in them, beneath the surface or the art direction, to stick in your craw the way "Ghost World" did. Clowes and Zwigoff proved that a deadpan comic book heavy on the suburban anomie could make sense on screen. The characters weren't smaller than life or larger than life. They were life.
"Art School Confidential" reunites Appleton, Wis ., native Zwigoff (who did "Bad Santa" in the interim) with Chicago-bred Clowes, and for about an hour their movie is nearly pitch-perfect--a bitter, witty college picture unlike any other. Then a subsidiary murder plot takes center stage and Clowes' lessons in art-world venalities and celebrity worship become more obvious. While I never got the hang of the later passages--Zwigoff's considerable strengths as a director do not include a knack for pacing a scene or even framing his actors memorably--the rewards are many.
In a prologue we see young Jerome Platz, social misfit and budding artist, getting beaten up between classes. (Such things are never easy to watch in a movie, even if you've been spared the humiliation first hand.) Six years later Jerome (Max Minghella) is accepted into Strathmore Institute in New York City. A college freshman, he's out to conquer the world and meet what his fellow student Bardo (Joel David Moore) calls "the beautiful beatnik art chick of [his] dreams."
Not everyone at Strathmore, which has been plagued by a series of unsolved murders, is there to study drawing. One of Jerome's roommates, Vince (Ethan Suplee), is a filmmaker. The other, Matthew (Nick Swardson), is working toward a degree in fashion and has yet to come out of the closet. (Zwigoff has cast this film very well.) Two dubious mentor figures compete for Jerome's young psyche: his art teacher (John Malkovich), more concerned about his own stalled career than the development of his students, and an outlandishly venomous "outsider" artist (Jim Broadbent).
The script is rich with phony artspeak and all manner of egocentric archetypes. When a deeply suspicious female art student warns Jerome, "You have to come to my opening tonight," the dread in her voice is priceless. Among its distinctions, "Art School Confidential" features the funniest scene involving full-frontal male nudity since the overweight cuckold ran toward the car in "Sideways." This occurs in one of the film's many scenes set in drawing class, where Jerome first meets the model (Sophia Myles) who represents Ground Zero for Jerome's sexual anxiety.
The movie sputters in its later, darker passages, which by design are less audience-friendly than the earlier, satirically secure ones. Clowes, who wrote "Art School Confidential" several years ago as part of his "Eightball" graphic-novel series, remembers each social injury from his own art school days, in sharp detail. The real-life inspiration for Strathmore, the Pratt Institute, was "the only [New York] art school that had a dorm," he said in a 2000 Salon interview. "I didn't learn anything, but my worst fears about art were confirmed--that it was all about who you know and had a lot to do with having the gift of gab and being able to talk yourself into getting a gallery show and all that. I knew I didn't have that. So I trained myself to do what I wanted, which was to do comics.""Art School Confidential" risks more highs and lows than the plaintive, even-toned "Ghost World." But both, improbably, have made themselves more or less at home on screen.
'Art School Confidential'
Directed by Terry Zwigoff; written by Daniel Clowes; cinematography by Jamie Anderson; edited by Robert Hoffman; production design by Howard Cummings; music by David Kitay; produced by Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich and Russell Smith. A United Artists and Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: R (for language including sexual references, nudity and a scene of violence).
Jerome Platz - Max Minghella
Audrey - Sophia Myles
Professor Sandiford - John Malkovich
Jimmy - Jim Broadbent
Jonah - Matt KeeslarCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times