Jerome (Max Minghella) and Vince (Ethan Suplee) are angst-ridden art students. 'Art School Confidential' takes on love, hipsters and crime
If "Art School Confidential" were an exhibition piece, it would be a collage of contrasting, clashing styles and tones. It begins as a rambunctious college comedy in the vein of "Animal House," digresses into a sharp-fanged satire of paint-smeared dilettantes, meanders into straight romance and winds up a murder mystery. It's a ruckus, veering from one picaresque episode to the next in its eagerness to debunk Hollywood clichés and art world stereotypes, but I prefer untidy novelty to paint-by-numbers storytelling any day. Bless this mess.
The characters are bitingly funny caricatures. The foreground figure is Jerome (Max Minghella), a naïve newcomer to the Strathmore Academy. The students are a Diane Arbus gallery of black-clad faux-hemians, burnouts, snide phonies and dopers. Jerome sincerely aspires to become a 21st-century Picasso, partly to express his considerable talent, but mostly so he can replicate his role model's gluttonous sex life. His roommates, a fey fashion major (Nick Swardson) and a male chauvinist film student (Ethan Suplee of TV's "My Name Is Earl") are working through their own issues. The moviemaker grumbles that he has to fit a love story into his true-crime documentary because "half the audience is skanks." The role of sex, hostility and self-pity in forming the artistic temperament is one of the film's recurring themes.
Crushing Jerome's fantasies is the bitter comic business of the movie. The faculty is know-it-alls and know-nothings. Prof. Sandiford (John Malkovich), who pontificates about creativity, teaches Jerome's life-drawing course, though he paints nothing but triangles ("I was one of the first," he boasts).
Jerome's a skilled portraitist, therefore unpopular among his classmates, who rave over each other's horrendous scribbles. His work catches the eye of pretty figure model Audrey (Sophia Myles), whose father is a famous painter. Jerome sees her as his muse. Audrey, whose romantic wanderings are varied to say the least, sees Jerome as a promising talent and a nice kid to have coffee with, but her interests lie with Jonah (Matt Keeslar), a handsome older student whose prosaic stick-figure images have taken the school by storm. "It's as if he's unlearned everything," gushes one fan.
Suffering for his art, the heartbroken Jerome seeks out the company of Strathmore's least-distinguished alum, Jimmy (Jim Broadbent). Jimmy represents the dead end people can reach when they abuse the artist's license to be eccentric, difficult, rude and temperamental. Jimmy lives alone in a tenement and paints morbid tributes to the Strathmore strangler, who has killed half a dozen victims recently. "All of humanity is too stupid to live," he rails, his eyes radiating raw hatred. Jerome, freshman that he is, begins to parrot Jimmy's contemptuous line, placing himself under police suspicion. The finale brings the worlds of art, crime and romance into alignment, with Jerome bruised but wiser.
The film is directed by the idiosyncratic Terry Zwigoff, whose love of nerdy heroes and hipster humor gave us the irreplaceable "Crumb,"Ghost World" and "Bad Santa."Art School Confidential" isn't a success on that scale, but grading it on the curve against the middling crop of studio comedies presently in release, it gets a solid B.
The setup: A naive student learns that the art world isn't pretty.
Rating: R for language including sexual references, nudity and a scene of violence.