In Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film “Ghost World,” there is a minor subplot in which the character of Enid takes an art class in summer school and learns just how superficial and pompous the art world is. Well, it looks like Zwigoff and screenwriter Daniel Clowes took that idea, blew it up into a feature, threw in a serial killer, and that’s how Zwigoff got his latest film, “Art School Confidential” which came out earlier this year and was just released on DVD.
The story follows Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) during the first term of his freshman year at the fictional Strathmore Art College, probably named after popular brand of drawing paper, although it’s actually based on the famous Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. As we follow Jerome’s ups and downs in his novice attempt to navigate the art world, we’re introduced to an assortment of characters from his two roommates (Ethan Suplee and Nick Swardson) who are a student filmmaker and fashion designer, respectively, to a host of drawing classmates each representing an art-school clichéd stereotype, such as the hippie, the goth, the mom, the slut, the dropout, the kiss-ass, the vegan, etc. The only one who doesn’t seem to fit into the stereotype is Jonah (Matt Keeslar). Jonah becomes Jerome’s chief rival when Jerome criticizes Jonah’s minimalist art in class.
Of course, what would a coming-of-age movie be without the girl, Audrey (Sophia Myles), whom our hero falls for, an art teacher (John Malkovich) who encourages Jerome (although his motives might be a little less than pure), and a crazy old washed-up artist (Jim Broadbent) who has no qualms about telling Jerome the vulgar “facts of life” about trying to make it as an artist.
Add to this mixture a strange subplot about a serial killer in the neighborhood. At times, this subplot seems irrelevant and you almost forget about it, until it returns and drives the plot along. To be honest, it seems silly and distracting, and yet, looking back after the film was over, I realize that it was rather necessary and helped the film to make some important points about the art world and its pretentiousness, in a comical way. To explain how the serial killer relates to art would be to give too much away, but I wish the film could have made its points without that silly plot element.
Other subplots—those based more on character—are more interesting, such as the quest of Jerome’s roommate to make a Tarantinoesque student film, the other roommate’s worries about whether or not he should “come out,” and the rivalry between the professors. I rather wish the move had better developed these lines.
I was fortunate enough to watch this film with my sister Judi who is an artist and actually attended an art school in upstate New York. I enjoyed a long discussion with her afterwards and she was able to confirm for me that the movie hit the nail on the head about a number of details from art school, not the least of which was the way all the students would critique each others’ work in an extremely pompous and pretentious way.
The movie also had some excellent acting by masters like Malkovich and Broadbent, although a minor role by Steve Buscemi seemed like it was phoned in, compared to the amazing work he’s done in so many other films.
Also, the two main characters seem shallow. Jerome claims he wants to be “the greatest artist of 21st Century,” but he doesn’t have any idea of what that means or what it takes. As the movie goes on and Jerome gets more frustrated with his classmates’ lack of respect for his art and his inability to win the girl, he starts to slip further and further into a dark place. And yet he doesn’t. His morally-questionable actions toward the end just don’t seem believable. Perhaps it’s the acting. Maybe Minghella, as a 20-year-old actor, just doesn’t have the experience and mastery of colleagues like Broadbent.
The same can be said for Audrey. She’s pretty, but we don’t really know her as a character. Rather, her purpose in the film seems basically to be an object of Jerome’s affections. And speaking of which, what does he see in her other than looks? Well, he is just a college freshman, so what more can you expect. At least he’s more respectful of the opposite sex than his friends.
In the end, the movie was a bit disappointing. Although it addressed important themes like what is art, why does real talent go unnoticed, and why does pretentiousness get such acclaim, it just wasn’t as biting or satirical as I felt it could have been. There were certainly a number of mild chuckles, but no real good belly-laughs. When I asked Judi what she thought of it as a comedy, she responded, “That was a comedy?” And I agreed with her when she said movies like “The Shape of Things” and “Morlang” were much better and more tightly focused on the issue of what is art and its moral implications.
I felt that the movie really had a great potential, but somehow it just didn’t live up to it. I can’t put my finger on it, but a certain je ne sais quoi was missing. I wish I could be more specific. Maybe it’s just that my expectations were too high. I guess great art is just not easy to create.
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