Art School Confidential
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
screenplay adapted from his own graphic novel by Daniel Clowes


The new film from director Terry Zwigoff - with a screenplay by Daniel Clowes, adapted from the original material (a graphic novel) which he also created - is an entertaining but uneven piece of work. It may be that the story is too personal and autobiographical for the author for him to be able to maintain the kind of intellectual objectivity that allows the experiences of an individual to translate into the "universal" - or to create a coherent, compelling narrative out of a series of deeply felt personal memories.

It is the second collaboration between the two. Clowes was the author of the graphic novel "Ghostworld" and also the adapted screenplay for Zwigoff's film of the same name. Ghostworld was the story of two "outsider" high-school students and their attempts to make peace with their transition into adult life. The main characters were women and although it was rich with believable incident, the storyline as a whole (albeit with an existentially-absurd, "shaggy dog" quality) carried viewers along. The graphic novel was faithfully adapted for the screen and imaginatively filmed, edited and presented by Zwigoff.

Art School Confidential by contrast, shows the same richness of detail and is both painful and amusing in its depiction of the protagonist's coming of age - which is really the center of the narrative - but it gets bogged down in its attempts to comment on too many issues and skewer too many targets. One can't help feel that the author's very personal animosities and disappointments in his own Art School experience drive the film to be both heavy-handed and disjointed.

Not that there isn't a lot to make fun of, both in the adolescent pretensions of Art Students and the larger pretensions of Art Schools and Art Instructors. It is a rich vein, that has been mined successfully many times, and Clowes and Zwigoff hit the target often. The problem is that in doing so they sacrifice the narrative and character development in favor of making the satirical set-pieces the focus of much of the film, rather than using them to energize and propel the story.

That story follows the life of Jerome (Max Minghella), like Clowes a naive midwesterner with artistic talent that helped make him an "outsider" in school, who emigrates to New York to be among "real artists" and study at Art School. The discoveries he makes in this process and the confusion and disillusionment - as well as ultimate transformation - are the energetic center of the film. But Clowes' script gets distracted too often by opportunities to send-up one aspect of the experience or another to give this potentially engaging tale the continuity and weight it would have needed to become compelling.

And Zwigoff doesn't rein him in, as a good director should. Zwigoff made his name with a sort of psycho-docu-drama about famed underground cartoonist R. Crumb - titled simply Crumb - and his eccentric and deeply-troubled family. That film was outside the mold of what had been done before and the personalities involved were so magnetic - sometimes in a somewhat horrifying way - that it succeeded on the strength of the "characters" alone. No doubt Zwigoff's editing of his raw material and his ability to both provoke his subjects and record them in a deeply-revealing way were what brought coherence and emotional resonance to this effort.

But filming and editing documentary footage is a different skill-set than creating and combining the elements that make a fiction feature work. His second fiction feature after the strange though intriguing Ghostworld was the execrable Bad Santa. But such "sophomore slumps" are common for new directors, and on the strength of Ghostworld and Crumb most critics were willing to extend the benefit of the doubt Although Zwigoff showed a relatively deft hand with Ghostworld, in the current film he allows the script - helter-skelter as it is - to run away with it, for a result that at best is inconclusive for his future career.

This lack of restraint is particularly obvious the inclusion of a ridiculous and totally unnecessary plot-twist (also in the source material) involving a serial killer, that is neither treated seriously for straight dramatic value, nor satirically for its black humor, and ends up falling between the two stools. Sometimes part of the job of "directing" a film has to include judicious editing of the story-line to eliminate such elements, that may or may not work in the original material, but clearly distract from what the film has to try and accomplish in only 100 minutes.

Like the script, which has moments of genuine insight and humor interspersed with jokes that fall flat, clichés and labored earnestness, the performances are inconsistent, in spite of having some very talented cast members. Part of the problem is that relatively inexperienced newcomers Minghella (and yes, he is the son of director/choreographer Anthony Minghella) and Sophia Myles, as his love-interest Audrey, are given too much to do, while the excellent supporting cast including John Malkovitch, Jim Broadbent, and Angelica Huston are given far too little.

Minghella is a young actor of limited range - far different from the young veterans Thora Burch and Scarlett Johansson, who played Zwigoff's leads in Ghostworld - and it is perhaps a sign of Zwigoff's lack of experience directing actors that the performance he elicits is so uneven, ranging from a few genuine moments to many awkward scenes where Minghella seems to be reading his lines for the first time.

Myles - although she has more experience than Minghella - is also something of a neophyte. Her performance also conveys an uncertainty and tentativeness at certain points that seems to be more that of the actor than that of the character. The fact that this seeming lack of confidence is consistent between both leads is what suggests the conclusion that it is Zwigoff who is chiefly responsible for this shortcoming.

Part of the director's job is to guide the actors to genuine, effective performances and to help (and insist) they maintain the consistency of those performances from scene to scene - in fact, from day to day and week to week - as the film is shot. The erratic shifts in tone here indicate that at least as far as this film is concerned, Zwigoff was not up to the job.

On the other hand, with those actors who clearly know their craft, Zwigoff's lack of guidance may be a plus. Chief among them is John Malkovitch - whose turn as the art-school teacher and aspiring artist Professor Sandiford is a delicious caricature of the pretensions and pettiness of academics in general. But Malkovitch goes beyond caricature, and imbues Sandiford with the frustrated longing and sincere aspirations that lie beneath his cynical surface which make the satire more effective by adding a layer of subtle but important feeling to the film.

Angelica Huston is given too little to do. Her turn - almost a cameo, except that she reappears briefly - as a lecturer on "Art History" is a deftly-sketched study in cliché. She introduces a character who adds a good deal to the texture of the film, but unfortunately her contribution is very short-lived. In the same manner, the uncredited appearance by Steve Buscemi as self-important art-world huckster and coffee-shop proprietor "Broadway Bob" is a delightful little bit, but it is neither capitalized on nor fully-integrated into the film as a whole.

Veteran character actor Michael Lerner gives a classic lesson in quick character creation with his interpretation of the Gallery Owner/Art Dealer, but the part is underwritten and the effect is largely thrown away. Jim Broadbent, as the failed artist and Art School Grad, Jimmy has some of the best lines (and scenes) in the film. He refuses to make his character anything less than a fully-developed human-being, and he would steal the film, except that the improbable trajectory created for his character in the script betrays his hard work.

Other members of the ensemble, from Jerome's self-appointed guide, the serial art-school drop-out Bardo (Joel Moore) to his roommate, wannabe film-maker, Vince (the often excellent Ethan Suplee), to Matt Keeslar's All-American Jonah and Jack Ong as the long-suffering Professor Okamura, do credible jobs with the material they are given. The problem lies not in their performances but in the fact that the script is content to use them as shadow puppets - clichés rather than archetypes. It is indicative in this regard that the cast list identifies many of the "characters" not by name but as " Angry Lesbian," "Suburban Girl," or "Future Critic."

This is a low-budget production. Perhaps Zwigoff hoped that after his questionable work on Bad Santa (which nonetheless made good box office with a certain demographic), a return to his ̉indie" roots and collaboration with Clowes would help re-ground him. But the low-budget shows on-screen in a bad way, in poor lighting, sometimes muddy sound and performances that look as if they didn't have as much rehearsal time or shoot as many takes as would have been necessary to get a more polished and cohesive result.

Although it has moments of life and humor and is on a superficial level an effective satire of the stereotypical vision of Art School politics and pretensions, this is overall a sloppy and failed effort by a director who has shown some real talent for handling off-beat material in the past. Let's hope he can put this (and Bad Santa) behind him, and go on to fulfill some of the promise he has shown.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z