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May 10-16, 2006

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'Art School Confidential'

Suzanne Hanover/Courtesy United Artists/Sony Pictures Classics
From Malevich to Malkovich: John Malkovich plays a patronizing art teacher in Terry Zwigoff's assault on academia.

Brushed With Bile

Terry Zwigoff exposes the dark comic underbelly of pedagoguery in 'Art School Confidential'

By Richard von Busack

BITTER, savory and intoxicating as a keg-conditioned I.P.A., Art School Confidential is Terry Zwigoff's one-finger salute to poisonous pedagogues. It's like a Todd Solondz remake of Animal House.

Two traits lead Jerome (the meek, bushy-eyebrowed Max Minghella) to Strathmore College. One is a modest ability to draw. The other is a huge grudge from being a punching bag since childhood. Showing off a pamphlet with a tempting photograph of a life-drawing class, Jerome's idiot friend comments, "What kind of college has a naked chick for a teacher?"

Zwigoff pulls back from the photo of Strathmore's intimidating gothic walls to reveal what's outside the picture's frame: spilled garbage cans, a half-burnt automobile and staggering winos roaming on the sidewalk.

Daniel Clowes' original comic-book version of this story in Eightball consisted of a series of vignettes in which Clowes described professors "who couldn't teach a dog to bark." That's also the case in the movie, from the numbed-out sculpture prof Okamura (Jack Ong) to professor Sandiford (John Malkovich), the painting instructor. Sandiford is a great patronizer of students ("Only one of 100 of you will succeed"). But he also likes to lay his clammy hands on his students' thighs.

In the dorms, Jerome is billeted with a bulbous, bellowing film student, working on and starring in an indie movie about a local uncaptured serial killer, The Strathmore Strangler.

Art School Confidential depicts this imaginary college as a barrel of crabs, and there's always a crustacean with a slightly higher altitude—such as the snide Marvin Bushmiller (Adam Scott), who comes back to school to rub his success in the students' faces.

In classes, Jerome's fellow students bully him. In his leisure time, he dates the semipsychotic "art skanks" who attend Strathmore. But in his life-drawing class Jerome finds a new reason to live: a golden-haired figure model, Audrey (Sophia Myles). Soon, she grows more interested in a fellow student, Jonah (Matt Keeslar), whose trendy, flat monochrome paintings of appliances and automobiles make him the star of the school.

Some viewers will complain that the strangler-on-the-loose subplot distracts from the youthful journey of Jerome. But the lurking-killer story fits into Zwigoff and Clowes' vision of total existential hostility.

Zwigoff has made previous films about rancor and misanthropy, but this has to be his darkest yet. Everyone has an angle in Art School Confidential, but Zwigoff finds a different one: Bushmiller is a raving asshole, but he's also refreshingly honest. Even the nicest professor at Strathmore—Anjelica Huston, in a cameo—may have just emotionally unplugged herself from this ghastly college. Zwigoff is possibly claiming that those who teach best teach least.

Jerome is spineless, but he's modestly talented. His desire for revenge motivates him to become an artist. He wants to be a new Picasso, on the crassest grounds: Picasso made a mint and got all the girls he wanted. At the same time, Jerome is a genuine artist, in the only sense of that phrase that matters: he won't be happy doing anything but painting and drawing.

It's easy to romanticize fiscal failures. To Zwigoff's credit, this time he doesn't give us that easy kind of romance. The soundtrack, loaded with classical music, parodies generations of films about artists lusting for life.

Zwigoff's previous works cheered on talents who failed to make money or people who failed to fit in. His first film was a documentary, Louie Bluie, about a multitalented blues musician who sold almost no records, even in the 1930s; Zwigoff turned to unrecognized geniuses (Charles Crumb in Crumb) and ordinary people crushed by life (Ghost World and Bad Santa).

But in Art School Confidential, Zwigoff has created his most frightening figure yet: an alcoholic artist called "Jimmy." He's played by Jim Broadbent in a performance that goes against that actor's natural gentleness. Broadbent's scalding performance recalls the apoplectic anger of David Thewlis in Mike Leigh's Naked.

In Zwigoff's view, the art market crushes both successes and failures alike. It's one very dark picture that Zwigoff is painting, but he even comes up with a kind of happy ending—and makes it fit, too. Jerome gets his priorities straight; at last, he's alone with his muse, even if he doesn't get that close to her.

Art School Confidential is a comedy, but it's a serious statement on the how the worst art schools encourage that very mediocrity and conformity that art ought to vanquish. Though these anecdotes of this worst-case scenario of bohemian life are basically comic, the film is a caustic lesson: dedicating yourself to a life in the arts isn't a decision to be taken lightly.

Movie TimesArt School Confidential (R; 102 min.), directed by Terry Zwigoff, written by Daniel Clowes, photographed by Jamie Anderson and starring Max Minghella and Sophia Myles, opens May 12 at selected theaters.

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