A spitball that clings to the blackboard longer than I would have expected it to, Art School Confidential blows the lid on what scriptwriter Daniel Clowes, an art-school grad himself, has called "the biggest scam of the century." Clowes, who apparently spent his Draw Blinky years in a morose funk, quietly recording his classmates' various peccadilloes, would go on to pen-and-ink the underground comics that have made him a worthy successor to R. Crumb. And after the success of Ghost World, also derived from his work, he and director Terry Zwigoff have teamed up again to transfer his four-page exposÃ? to the big screen. Set in one of those toxic environments where, if the paint fumes don't get you the French-based theory will, it's a middle-finger salute to the posers and losers, the misfits and dimwits, who engage in the academic pursuit of art.
And as long as it sticks to Clowes' syllabus, nailing the various archetypes Ã?' Vegan Holy Man, Boring Blowhard, Angry Lesbian, Kiss-Ass Ã?' to the wall, it's on solid ground. But actual characters and an actual plot had to be added, and Clowes threw in an unfortunate subplot about a serial killer, the Strathmore Strangler, who may consider his victims part of his artistic oeuvre. Less an exposÃ? than a once-over-lightly satire, Art School Confidential is now mostly about Jerome (Max Minghella), a budding artiste with sensitive eyebrows who's entered the Strathmore Institute both to meet women and to become the next Pablo Picasso. That he actually knows how to draw would seem to disqualify Jerome from a place in the contemporary art world, but not in this Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on the Move. With his sensual lips, Jerome was meant for the cover of Art News.
But why do Zwigoff and Clowes pull for him? Compared to Thora Birch's Enid in Ghost World, Minghella's Jerome is a bowl of vanilla ice cream. And Minghella doesn't know how to add any other flavors. Nor does Zwigoff: Art School Confidential is almost devoid of technique. The screen seems numb, narcotized. And the exterior scenes are like outtakes from someone's old home movies. Unable to capture the mock-outrage tone of Clowes' comic, Zwigoff might have at least come up with one of his own. But somehow this doesn't sink the movie altogether. The subject matter Ã?' that ultra-fine line between art for the ages and utter bullshit Ã?' is too promising. Tom Wolfe went after this phenomenon years ago in his own art-world exposÃ?, The Painted Word. But one of the nice things about art school is that there's a fresh crop of bullshit artists every year.