starring Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, John Malkovich, Anjelica Huston
screenplay by Daniel Clowes
directed by Terry Zwigoff
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. When Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff sat down to adapt the former's graphic serial Ghost World for the screen, they divided up the task generationally, if you will, with the younger Clowes writing the Enid parts and Zwigoff writing the Seymour parts, which themselves have no correlative in the graphic novel. Clowes flew solo on the semi-autobiographical script for the pair's latest collaboration, Art School Confidential, and the main problem with it is that it's all Enid and no Seymour. In fact, the film is so relentlessly glib that the Enid doppelgänger who pops up now and again seems gratuitous--and moreover belabours a Ghost World comparison (much like the extended cameo from an unbilled Steve Buscemi) that only finds Art School Confidential wanting. The closest thing the movie has to a moral compass is Joel Moore's Bardo, one of those career students who becomes the Virgil to freshman Dante Jerome (Max Minghella). Adrift in a sea of poseurs, Jerome struggles in vain to win over his contemporaries, including comely life-drawing model Audrey (Sophia Myles). Meanwhile, a serial strangler trolling the campus for victims not only becomes Jerome's unwitting muse, but also provides one of his roommates, Vince (Ethan Suplee), with fodder for his thesis film.
Although the final scene of Art School Confidential apes that of Robert Bresson's Pickpocket as much as (if not more than, thanks to its emphasis on the tools of our hero's trade: his hands) American Gigolo does, all the secular misanthropy leading up to it is anything but Bressonian. As someone who took the odd art elective while enrolled in film school, I can vouch for the movie's credibility as satire--or, more precisely, burlesque: the classroom critiques are accurately depicted as a hazing ritual cum clusterfuck, while the artsy-fartsy types loitering in the background evince a documentary authenticity. Alas, these harmless jackasses--who don't interact so much as they mesh to form a wallpaper pattern--aren't humanized beyond Bardo's pithy labels (i.e. "Nympho Slut," "Army Jacket," etc.), lest Clowes risk diluting the purity of his contempt for them. So much for success being the best revenge: Clowes obviously has an axe to grind (the excessive violence of the strangulation scenes (think Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy) further proves this), and as a result, Art School Confidential feels, to paraphrase filmmaker Thom Andersen, like a memoir written in crocodile tears.
There was a time, I think, when Clowes would've invested the grotesques on parade in Art School Confidential with at least two dimensions, even though the four-page story that inspired the film, written as a lark to fill the back pages of Clowes's celebrated, Crumb-esque alternative comic "Eightball", is no less snarky; perhaps he's finally succumbed to the cynicism that is the Achilles Heel of his prototypical antihero. Case in point, Audrey: In "Ugly Girls," another story from "Eightball", a character romanticizes the physical defects (a scar here, a snaggletooth there) that epitomized the appeal of girls he's been infatuated with--a casual demolition of myths about male superficiality that Art School Confidential actively undermines by never challenging the empirically beautiful Myles's status as a grail object. Jerome even gets the girl, and everyone who doubted his supremacy winds up with egg on their face. However strong its undercurrent of self-loathing (the film student, Zwigoff's de facto avatar, is talentless; Bardo ultimately dismisses Jerome, Clowes's presumed surrogate, as a "douche bag"), it's a movie that only a Rupert Pupkin could enjoy guilt-free. Originally published: May 10, 2006.