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With: Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent, Anjelica Huston, Steve Buscemi, Ethan Suplee, Matt Keeslar, Joel David Moore
Written by: Daniel Clowes
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
MPAA Rating: R for language including sexual references, nudity and a scene of violence
Running Time: 102
Date: 01/23/2006

Art School Confidential (2006)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

State of the Art

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The artistic impulse in humans can take many forms: cooking, photography, painting, sculpting, collecting, gardening or even writing about the movies. But what lies beneath this impulse, this obsession of ours? Ultimately, it's a very ugly need -- a need for order, a need for acceptance and adoration, or a need to be loved. At the same time we automatically counter that need with a crushing despair: What if I'm no good at this? What if other people find out that I'm a fraud? This may surprise many people, but successful artists rarely get to relax and enjoy it. They spend their time wondering when the other shoe is going to drop.

As it turns out, Bay Area filmmaker Terry Zwigoff comes closer to picking at this emotional scab than any other living director. His astonishing documentary Crumb (1995) -- considered by many to be among the greatest documentaries ever made -- depicts the great comic book artist Robert Crumb, still at the height of success. He's so established that he's even able to trade a pile of original art work for a house in France. But Crumb is uncertain what to make of it all. He claims his work is inferior to that of his late brother Charles, and still bristles at the inhospitality of the world. He is far from comfortable. (Incidentally, Crumb has just been re-released, re-mastered on an excellent new DVD from Sony Pictures Classics.)

Zwigoff ventured into feature filmmaking with a masterful adaptation of Daniel Clowes's Ghost World (2001), about a misanthrope, Enid (Thora Birch), who -- like Crumb -- shuts herself off from the world in a cocoon of cynicism and her own id-fueled art work. It was also a highly personal work; Zwigoff included a character very much based on himself, insecure record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi), as well as a scrapbook drawn by Robert Crumb's daughter, Sophie.

Ghost World ended on an ambiguous note, giving hope for some that Enid would somehow find humanity. Now Zwigoff and Clowes have teamed up once again for Art School Confidential, a far darker work, just as funny, but with no such comforting closure. Unlike many of this year's nobler efforts, this film comes straight from its makers' souls; they had no choice but to make it. Zwigoff clues us in on his intentions in the film's first shot, a P.O.V. punch in the face, delivered by a bully to our young hero.

Years later, Jerome (Max Minghella, of Bee Season) has grown into a dewy-eyed, virginal art student who signs up as a freshman for Strathmore Institute. Our first view of the school is a majestic skyline, but as the camera tilts downward, it picks up litter, junky cars, suspicious characters and an overall seedy atmosphere. Jerome meets many characters at school, an arrogant filmmaker, an effeminate fashion designer and an angry young woman who constantly wears sweatpants. But it's nude model Audrey (Sophia Myles) that lights his fire.

Jerome claims to want to be the next Picasso, but really he wants girls like Audrey to like him. He finds his biggest competition in a mysterious, handsome outsider (Matt Keeslar), whose naïve paintings capture the school's imagination. But Jerome also finds encouragement from a teacher (John Malkovich), whose series of "triangle" paintings remain misunderstood and unsold. Fate takes a twisted turn with the unseen presence of the "Strathmore Strangler," a killer on the loose.

By far the film's most important character, however, is Jimmy (Jim Broadbent, in an Oscar-worthy performance full of humor and pathos). A fifty-something Strathmore grad, Jimmy now lives in squalor (in an apartment modeled after Charles Crumb's room) nestled inside a rotting bathrobe, gulping scotch from a filthy paper cup.

Jimmy is the spiritual cousin to Zwigoff's Bad Santa (2003), a W.C. Fields-like character -- or a grown-up Enid -- finished with making fun of the world, and currently wallowing in its misery. A cynical classmate brings Jerome to meet this "legend," and Jerome gets an earful. "Tell me Jerome, are you a great artist when it comes to fellatio?" he asks, meaning that, in order to penetrate the art world, Jerome will need a great deal more than just talent and ambition.

Zwigoff and cinematographer Jamie Anderson (Grosse Pointe Blank, Bad Santa) show Jerome's decline visually through his eyes. Each time we see him, his eyes grow darker, as if he must try physically harder to see through the gloom. Indeed, Jerome slowly begins to question his youthful destiny as the world's greatest artist. His ego takes quite a beating, and it can be difficult to watch, at least until the delightfully wicked ending.

Art School Confidential may sound dismal, but if you're tuned in to Zwigoff and Clowes's brand of humor, it could also turn into the year's funniest film. Some of its darkest jokes are also its most hilarious. These filmmakers (artists) have moved beyond fart jokes and pop culture references. Their humor comes not from a need to be loved or a need to win awards, but rather straight from an acute awareness of the world's follies. Lest the despair take over completely, their only option is to laugh and laugh.

DVD Details: Even though Terry Zwigoff didn't record a commentary track (he doesn't like doing them), Sony has still released an excellent DVD, with lots of good featurettes, deleted scenes, alternate takes and flubs. Zwigoff and writer Dan Clowes are so smart and cynical that they manage to quietly subvert the usual talking-head format. Plus, in seeing the movie again, I discovered a few new things in it, and can say that I like it even better than before.

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