Art is the foundation of society; now please don't tell the artists. Art School Confidential is to creative universities what Saved! was to Christian high schools, a knowing and sympathetic lampoon of the educational environment and the students who choose to inhabit it.
Based on a book by cartoonist Daniel Clowes and adapted for the screen by the same, Art School Confidential follows Jerome (Max Minghella) as he struggles to succeed in art and love. Jerome becomes infatuated with a drawing class model, Audrey, but is frustrated when a talentless jock wins the adoration of both the model and his classmates. Jerome endears himself to Audrey, played by the lovely Sophia Myles, through displays of dedication, but she's taken in more by rival Jonah's simple and engaging line work. Turning to an outcast Strathmore alum, Jerome embarks on a path that will lead him from the world of Monet to the realm of Manson.
Early on in this film ("film" rather than "movie," to get the full effect), Jerome's friend runs down a list of all the people one is bound to meet in art school. These include the recurring drop out, the suck-up, the angry lesbian, the Vegan holy man, and others. This is deadly accurate, and deadly funny to anyone who's been there. Many of these types are further explored in the critique of Jonah's art; it is basic and unassuming, yet the class and professors find it profound, while Jerome's skilled and detailed images are held in disgust. John Malkovich is brilliant and utterly believable as the has-been professor eager to steer young proteges into the worlds of minimalism and homosexuality. Jerome's filmmaker roommate Vince, played by Ethan Suplee, is also a prime example of student filmmaker.
In addition to skewering the pretensions of aspiring artists, Art School Confidential also captures the other side: Jerome's family dinner is exquisite, as parents and siblings try desperately to show their support but having no idea what that entails.
Max Minghella gives a strikingly human portrayal of the artist as a young man, a kid who doesn't fit in with the cool crowd yet is not quite in tune with his creative peers. It is to his and director Terry Zwigoff's credit that Minghella performs to the top of the audience's intelligence, avoiding the pitfalls and poor decisions that cripple many young actors' on-screen presence. Sophia Myles's Audrey, too, has just the right amount of depth and mystery, always suggesting and never quite giving away her true intentions.
The pacing of this movie is strange in that it shifts subtly from its focus on the foibles of fabulously misunderstood geniuses to a murder mystery. No, not quite a mystery. Once Art School Confidential reveals its more vicious side, it's pretty clear who the killer is. And that's beside the point. Clowes instead rotates his story around the character of this murderer, growing and shaping the plot in unexpected ways. There are a few aspects of this that are not satisfactorily fleshed out by the film's end, which is too bad. The ending is a riot but leaves a plot of good land untilled.
Like his 2001 release Ghost World, Daniel Clowes expertly adapts his thoughtful comic book work for the screen. It takes a good deal of talent to know your work well enough, and to know the different media of storytelling deeply enough, to commit as the defining voice of a second iteration. Clowes has it, and Zwigoff makes stunning use of his cast and crew. This is a film worth watching for any enthusiast of the arts, for those who create art, and for anyone who thinks it's all a load of rubbish. There's something here for everybody, depending on one's take, but viewers with some emotional investment in the cultural will get the most out of the humor; they're also the most likely to be offended at jokes hitting too close to home.
"Art School Confidential" opens May 5, 2006 and is rated R. Comedy. Directed by Terry Zwigoff. Written by Daniel Clowes. Starring Adam Scott, Anjelica Huston, Ethan Suplee, Jim Broadbent, Joel Moore, John Malkovich, Matt Keeslar, Max Minghella, Nick Swardson, Sophia Myles.