Today’s cinema adventure: Art School Confidential, the 2006 film by Terry Zwigoff based on Daniel Clowes’ underground comic of the same name. The second collaboration between Zwigoff and Clowes, it follows the efforts of an art college freshman to win the love of his dream girl by becoming a successful artist. It shares many of the themes of their first joint effort, Ghost World, as well as its bleak world view and cynical take on humanity, and features an impressive array of talent in supporting roles.
The plot follows Jerome, a young man whose interest in art has more to do with his libido than his desire for self-expression. Believing that success in the art world will allow him a limitless amount of female companionship; he enrolls as an art major in an urban college, where he has high hopes that his talent will quickly be acknowledged. Instead, he finds himself just one of many frustrated hopefuls in a depressingly grim environment where the only topic more discussed than the uselessness of an art degree is the string of unsolved murders taking place near the campus. Surrounded by peers who are self-absorbed, pretentious boors, and professors who are self-important, disaffected failures, more interested in their own stalled art careers than in nurturing the abilities of the students under their charge, he gradually realizes that success is more about playing the game than about talent. To make matters worse, he is completely turned off by the dysfunctional girls in his dating pool, and he begins to despair that his fantasies of being a playboy artist will be crushed by the cold reality of adult life. Things begin to look up when he meets a beautiful model who shows an interest in him, but after she is swayed by a handsome fellow student- whose work has gained more recognition than his own- his desperation drives him to concoct a deceitful plan which will put him on the fast track to success and win back the attention of his newfound dream girl.
On the surface, Art School Confidential feels like one of those eighties-era coming-of-age comedies directed by John Hughes, in which a geeky teen loser learns that being yourself is more important than being popular and ends up winning the boy or girl of their dreams by the final scene. That description is not far off, but in this screenplay, penned by Clowes himself to ensure faithfulness to his own misanthropic vision, the formula is turned on its ear. Jerome doesn’t want to be accepted as he is, he wants to be worshipped; and far from finding empowerment and self-actualization, he learns that being himself brings only further isolation and obscurity, and that if he wants his dreams to come true he will have to find a way to stoop lower than everyone else. His story is shot through with the kind of social satire that hits uncomfortably close to home, threatening to undermine any preconceived ideas we might have about the underlying goodness of humanity; if there was ever any there, Clowes makes it clear that it has been thoroughly snuffed out by the degraded, ego-driven culture he shows us. Like our protagonist, we look around desperately for kindred spirits, but the cast of characters offers us little solace; Jerome’s fellow students are a collection of affected misfits and pompous twits, and the adults are more or less an older- and more disillusioned- generation of the same breed. Virtually every person in the film is motivated by their vanity, and everyone else around them is merely an object to be used in their quest for self-fulfillment. This is true even of those few characters that seem sympathetic- including Jerome, who turns out to be more of an anti-hero than we surmise. With such a disheartening perspective on the denizens of the art world- and, by extension, the rest of the human race- it’s hard to find any of the comedy very funny, at least in a laugh-out-loud way. The film’s humor is dark, dry, and derisive; it is also arch and vaguely judgmental, casting a reproving eye on the professional and personal pursuits of all its characters and concluding that the bulk of human endeavor amounts to a desperate cry for attention.
For his part, director Zwigoff makes every effort to keep things light, at least visually. He capitalizes on the movie’s teen-angst heritage with nods to the genre’s cliches, such as “getting-it-done” montages and character-based visual gags, and directs his actors with a clear focus on presenting its familiar types. He obviously relishes the exploration of his quirky characters’ personalities, but he emphasizes the details of the plot enough to keep it moving effectively. It’s also obvious that he shares Clowes’ ironic sensibilities, and he is careful not to undermine Art School Confidential by softening its snarky edge with sentimentality- although, with the help of his A-list cast of adult actors, he does manage to imply a more mature counter-perspective that includes at least a little mitigation of the seemingly soulless and shallow priorities exhibited by the inhabitants of his film’s inhospitably selfish universe.
For their part, the actors do their best to keep things real, without relying solely on the surface qualities of their stereotypical characters; overall, the cast manages to infuse a level of humanizing depth to the proceedings that keeps the movie from being an unrelentingly pessimistic existential polemic. Despite their best efforts at honest playing- or perhaps, in many cases, because of it- there are few likable characters in Art School Confidential; the single most pleasant personality is exhibited by Joel Moore, as Jerome’s friend Bardo, whose portrayal of a proudly self-acknowledged failure is refreshingly free of barely-concealed self-promotional subtext- appropriately making this gregarious loser a comfortable island in a sea of chilly attitudes. Max Minghella is deceptively appealing as Jerome, until his quest for recognition turns him into a self-pitying cry-baby; and Sophia Myles, likewise, fools us into liking his would-be soulmate, Audrey. The good stuff, however, comes from the heavy-hitting support team of accomplished grown-ups; John Malkovich, Anjelica Huston, Jim Broadbent, and Steve Buscemi all bring their skills to the table as they portray various representatives of the older-but-not-necessarily-wiser set, and the film leaps several notches up in quality when they are on the screen- which, sadly, is never for very long.
Art School Confidential is meant, of course, to be a comedic exposé of the pretentious, stagnated world of academic art, a subject ripe for vigorous satire. The problem is that the humor seems to come from a rather mean-spirited place; Clowes and Zwigoff take a decidedly uncharitable view of almost every affectation and foible displayed by their characters, and at times their approach feels more like bullying ridicule than good-natured ribbing. Their critical stance is certainly a valid one, but one can’t help feeling that the harsh perspective is a little too one-sided; after all, it’s easy to point fingers at the hypocrisy and artificiality we see around us, but it is perhaps more interesting to explore what lies underneath that surface. Coming of age involves an awakening, a realization that the world is full of phonies and disappointments; but it also involves advancing past this stage to a more mature viewpoint, one with which we can discern the more subtle forces at work around us. Art School Confidential strikes an attitude of smug contempt for its subject which smacks of sophomoric thinking, a pose which is ultimately no different than any of those assumed by the various characters it mercilessly skewers throughout. It misses its mark not because of the darkness of its tone or its candid observations about the weakness of mankind- many fine films share these qualities, such as the work of director Todd Solondz, whose movies Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse are about as pessimistic as you can get but still engage and stimulate us with their depth and their humanity. Rather, it fails because it lacks a certain maturity; instead of piercing insight, it offers blunt criticism, and in the end it leaves us knowing little and caring less about the inner workings of the world it portrays. It’s a shame, because Art School Confidential has a lot of potential- both Zwigoff and Clowes are exceptionally talented, and one can’t help but feel that somehow, something was lost in the translation from page to screen. There are times when the movie almost feels like it’s going to take off, and comedic moments that feel like they are about to make us laugh; but these are short-lived, and by the time we reach its somewhat predictable and not-very-satisfying climax, we have long since lost interest. Fans of Clowes’ ironic-outsider flavor may find the movie easier to take than the rest of us, but those interested in discovering his work might be better-advised to go to the source rather than starting with this weak adaptation. Still, the pairing of the author/artist and his filmmaking partner in crime seems a match made in heaven, and together they have managed to craft a very good film – but it’s called Ghost World, and the disappointment of Art School Confidential is probably all the more bitter because they proved once before that they could get it right.