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Published: Friday, 5/12/2006

Movie review: Art School Confidential **


Looking for melodrama?

Tears? Pain? Rivalry?

Heroes to cheer?

Like watching people squirm?

Attend an art-school critique.

Art School Confidential, directed by the great Terry Zwigoff (who's not so great here) and written by the great graphic novelist Daniel Clowes (who's not so great here, either), is a toneless mess of the sort only very smart people are capable of, though deep down, at its core, is a scenario totally original and suited to a comedy:

The angst of art school.

Specifically, the pretense of the class critique, a dreaded seasonal art-school ritual, in which your teacher and peers assess what you've been working on all semester. With you sitting there.

Probably bristling.

Our hero (though that's generous for so passive and opaque a sensitive freshman) is Jerome (Max Minghella, of Bee Season). He attends fictional Strathmore Institute, where he realizes that professional, conventional art isn't trendy enough for teachers and classmates; his ambition (to be the next Picasso) is too obvious; mediocrity is routinely praised; and everyone he knows is a fake.

A bunch of poseur phonies.

Just like Catcher in the Rye.

But with real phonies - given the authority of judging your work because they say they can. (Among those classmates is Monika Ramnath, who plays Flower; the former Sylvania native attended Notre Dame Academy.)

Zwigoff and Clowes - who collaborated on the 2001 gem Ghost World, making this failure all the more painful - juggle a few provocative ideas about art and movies: What's the line between making fun of bad art and making fun of the earnest intentions that created it? If opinions are subjective, then why are opinions so stinging? And since when do we have to like a hero?

Or side with him?

Even Jerome's jaundiced contempt for everyone who doesn't understand him isn't especially original; though that isn't the problem with this film.

One art instructor (played by John Malkovich, with satiric delight) is obsessed with slights directed at his own drawings of, well, triangles. "I was one of the first," he tells anyone who notices them.

Then there's the drunk former artist (Jim Broadbent, playfully bent), embittered by the no-talents who (he assumes) put him where he is. And in a cameo Anjelica Huston plays the only person on campus who doesn't drip with undisguised ambition.

Having grown up blocks from Rhode Island School of Design, one of the country's toughest art schools, I'll vouch for these types and for their reservoirs of bile. Zwigoff and Clowes draw them broadly, but they exist; there was many a time I walked home from grade school and found myself in step with some mumbling (or weeping) art student (or professor) hauling a giant painting under one arm or even sculptures in wheelbarrows.

What's puzzling about Art School Confidential is that Clowes (who attended Manhattan's Pratt Institute) didn't find enough drama in the questions he raises. Ghost World moved at the speed of life, tightly focused on the rancor of young girls (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) alienated and contemptuous of the world around them. It didn't let them off the hook, either. But it did suggest the dead end of people who get marginalized by their bitterness.

Clowes and Zwigoff - the latter doesn't seem a lick interested in anything but the art-class scenes, tellingly - can't settle on a way to dramatize their issues. They gravitate to a romance; Jerome falls for a lovely nude model (Sophia Myles). Then it's on to a clumsy serial killer plot. And after the first half, you begin to loose sight of the film's point.

Clowes probably sold Zwigoff on the title alone. There's a bit of everything in it the director's curmudgeonly career touches on: The revenge of the art nerd (the hit documentary Crumb); the misanthropy of Bad Santa; the malcontents of Ghost World.

Art School Confidential could have been Zwigoff's manifesto of disgust - one that makes you work to spot the humanity, which is deep inside his movies (but missing here entirely). Instead it reminds me of something Picasso said: Two boys showed him a pebble and told him it looked like the head of a dog. He said no, it looked exactly like a typewriter.

Sounds like Zwigoff and Clowes, neither one sure what the other has in mind. But it definitely doesn't make sense.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.

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