Most people get that slap upside of the head called reality when they leave school. For Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), it’s when he starts school, art school, that is, Strathmore Institute, to be precise, the art school of his dreams and the venue for Terry Zwigoff’s ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, based on the comic book of the same name by Daniel Clowes, who also wrote the screenplay. This is a vicious satire played as tragedy and born of experiences that have been processed in part by Clowes, but that still have about them the rawness of barely healed scar tissue. Moments of sublime absurdity punctuate a nihilistic worldview that will leave the audience either mired in a slough of despond, or feeling just a little smug for being above the people on screen. This is not, in short, the feel-good movie of the summer.
Jerome’s great gift, and his curse, is to be able to see through the pretensions that surround him. When his classmates wax rhapsodic over a peer’s art, Jerome sees a self-portrait dashed off in less than two minutes and with even less thought devoted to it. A static drawing of a toy car leaves him cold while the rest of the class, including the teacher (co-producer John Malkovich), try to top each other with obtuse art-speak, rife with jargon and buzz words. Jerome, alas, listens only to his heart, and to the little voice in his head that dreams of being the greatest artist of the 21st century, which entails getting glory, revenge, and the girl of his dreams. That would be Audrey (Sophia Myles), the golden-haired artist’s model who seems warm yet aloof, sensual yet distant, accessible yet enigmatic. Naturally Jerome is smitten. Naturally, she prefers the student getting the most buzz (words).
Clowes peoples this study of the eternal struggle between art and commerce with vivid characters full of anger, some directed inward, some outward, and some for whom the expression of this anger is the closest they will get to a genuinely original artistic expression. Malkovich is an icon of narcissistic self-involvement fighting a world that, to his complete and incredulous astonishment, fails to appreciate the genius of the triangles with which he obsessively covers canvas after canvas. Steve Buscemi as the proprietor of the local coffee house/ gallery has his own flavor of vitriol playing someone who has given up on glory of his own and is willing to cling to whatever he can grab onto in the form of artists he can launch and who can then forget him. Clowes imagines even the lesser characters with a palpable gusto echoed by the actors, the obnoxious filmmaker roommate, the campus strangler, and the art school clichés such as the angry lesbian, the vegan spiritualist, the crazy beatnik chick, and that most bizarre art school denizen of all, the preppy. The best is Jimmy, the art school burn-out with a frank appreciation for hard liquor and telling the truth in such an unvarnished fashion that is leaves splinters on the listener. Played by Jim Broadbent with sad eyes and venomous demeanor, Jimmy’s first question to Jerome is about his prowess at a particular sexual act adding that the only way to make it in the art world is if he can master that particular practice.
Clowes and Zwigoff get that peculiar sort of invigoration that is a mix of terror and fascination with which Jerome settles into this strange land of attitude, ego, and crash commercialism. There is a genuine sense the excitement of interacting with people so unlike the blandness of his suburban milieu, who are certifiably less than completely compos mentis but who, in one way or another, hold his future in their careless hands.
It is Jerome who is the weakest link here. Specifically, Minghella, who is lovely to look at, but like the Bronzino portrait that he so resembles with his porcelain skin and dark, limpid eyes, he also has the emotional reserve, a coldness that leaves the audience in much the same state temperature-wise. His emotional roller coaster is just so much skating over smooth ice, lovely form, no passion. It’s a state made all the more obvious with the collection of characters, and the actors inhabiting them, that surround Jerome.
ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL is a quirky and diverting entertainment full of truth and absurdity, not unlike reality. Less satisfying overall than it could have been, it nonetheless boasts a sublime cynicism and just enough of a twinkle in its metaphorical eye to let most of us in on the joke.