It's not that the art world couldn't do with some ribbing. But critique is best when it's mixed up with a little affection. Or, at the very least, a reasonable approximation of the world that is being skewered.
Director Terry Zwigoff's adaptation of Daniel Clowes' graphic novel Art School Confidential isn't a very trenchant or even particularly funny commentary on art world poses and pretenses. Filled with inauthentic details and cheap shots, Art School Confidential's fake locations, candy colors, wooden performances and remedial slapstick feel about as "insider" a treatment of the art school experience as a correspondence course offered in the back pages of TV Guide.
Clowes' script and Zwigoff's unimaginative, visually bland direction bear much of the blame. But a sullen, vacuous Max Minghella as art student Jerome Platz doesn't help. When the film opens, Jerome is preparing to flee dull suburbia for art school in New York City. Jerome seems less enticed by the promise of an arts education than he is lured by horn-dog interest in the nude model featured in the school's brochure. That girl quickly becomes as much Jerome's idée fixe as the beguiling blonde of another teen sex comedy, The Sure Thing.
At art school, Jerome meets a cast of the kind of colorful "characters" who give films like Animal House their cartoonish veneer: sexy nymphos, angry lesbians (are there ever any other kind in such films?), swishy gay men (natch) and depressed goth art chicks. Once in art school, Jerome finds that his creativity is out of fashion. He does conventional head and shoulders portraits of beautiful women but his fellow art students are of a more conceptual bent, arranging stacks of chairs into sculpture or doing "self-portraits" by dipping their entire bodies in green paint and body-slamming a canvas.
But what Zwigoff and Clowes offer as an alternative is equally corny. Jerome has integrity, Art School Confidential suggests, because he hero-worships real artists like Picasso and becomes romantically obsessed with the naked model from the brochure. Audrey (Sophia Myles) becomes the muse he can't live -- or create -- without.
It's a romantic sensibility that on its own wouldn't be so bad. But combine that with the film's cynical rejection of idea art and sophomoric sense of humor, and Art School Confidential has a distinctly shallow, snide tone. From its skirt-chasing humor and casual sexism to its smirking amusement at homosexuality, Art School Confidential most often resembles the crass teen comedies of the '80s that managed to combine a sentimental vision of male sexuality and romance with obnoxious Mad magazine-caliber laughs.
Art School Confidential is as visually uninteresting as it is idea-parched. Visuals have, granted, never been a big component of Zwigoff's trick bag, which has tended to privilege countercultural content over film form.
In many ways, it makes sense that Zwigoff has returned so obsessively to the graphic comic drawing board. Comix reflect both his countercultural impulses and his take on contemporary life as an ironic mix of bright colors and grim content.
But lately, with Bad Santa and Art School Confidential, his flat, uniform surrealities and characters have begun to feel too much like superficial, vapid translations of that two-dimensional world to film.
Gone are the nuanced, sympathetic teenage misanthropes like Enid in Zwigoff's emotionally fraught teen dramady Ghost World, also taken from a Clowes' comic. Instead, Ghost World's and Crumb's justified gloominess has curdled into a kind of wisenheimer juvenilia. And in Art School Confidential, that combination of mean-spiritedness and snarky irony form a lethal, nearly undrinkable hootch.