Media : Art that goes thud

Terry Zwigoff’s latest venture is twisted by a strangler

Two things about Terry Zwigoff: One (widely observed), he’s got a thing for the outsider, the shunned, frequently brilliant fringe-dweller — two-parts detached observer to one-part borderline misanthrope. Two (personally observed), his films seem to be getting worse.

Max Minghella (right) plays the artist Jerome in Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’s comic story Art School Confidential.

Now, don’t all jump down my throat at once. I know some of you jazz cats and emo kids dig on the Zwig like a pirate loves booty, but I recently took in two Zwigoff selections: his second film, the (rightfully) much-fawned-over 1994 documentary Crumb, and his latest, the perplexing Art School Confidential — and can’t for the life of me bridge the cognitive and stylistic gap that would needs be crossed for the director of the former to make, or even be partial to, the latter. But then, Crumb stands apart from and towers above any of his projects since (the passable but forgettable Ghost World and the execrable Bad Santa being the others). Certainly, Confidential seems more at home with these later, somewhat lighter brethren than the other, though all four exhibit tell-tale thematic Zwigoff-isms, at least on paper.

Art School Confidential
Dir. Terry Zwigoff; writ. Daniel Clowes (comic story, screenplay); feat. Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent, Anjelica Huston, Matt Keeslar, Joel Moore, Steve Buscemi (uncredited) (R)

Art School Confidential opens amusingly enough, with a sympathetic kid getting pummeled by some big porker of a schoolyard bully. We learn that the put-upon kid’s name is Jerome and that he likes girls and art, then light-speed through high school and onto (yep) art school before the credits are done. (Too bad, too: These quirky first bits are the best of the picture.) Freshman Jerome (Max Minghella — Clooney’s kid in Syriana, Anthony Minghella’s kid in real life) matriculates at prestigious-but-fictional Strathmore Institute, where he’s summarily assailed by a panoply of art-college denizens and clichés: “The Angry Lesbian,” “The Vegan Holyman,” et cetera. (If the device sounds familiar, it is: This sort of thing was done more cleverly in the high-school Shakespeare flick 10 Things I Hate About You, and bludgeoned to a merciless, sputtering death in 2001’s Not Another Teen Movie.) From there, things alternate between hackneyed convention and left-field head-scratching. Jerome, a soulful-and-good-looking-but-overlooked-and-lovelorn painter, falls for unattainable nude model Audrey (Sophia Myles, Tristan & Isolde), who becomes his muse. But frustration and pain await the driven young artist, as a surfer-ish beefcake of a fellow student (Matt Keeslar) steals the attentions of the class, their professor (John Malkovich, a co-producer on the film) and Audrey, to boot. Things begin to unravel here for Jerome, and for Zwigoff, as a silly-seeming, twisty subplot about a campus serial murderer known as the Strathmore Strangler (seriously) overtakes the story and, fairly inexplicably, gets to drive the rest of the way home.

Too gimmicky and mundanely presented to be the piercing black comedy it seems to want to be, but too odd and disjointed to be anything else, Confidential ultimately goes thud. The script is cartoonish and poor, though it was adapted by Daniel Clowes from his comic story — the same formula that garnered him and Zwigoff an Oscar nomination for Ghost World. The performances aren’t bad (Moore and Buscemi are enjoyable enough), though Jim Broadbent and Anjelica Huston are underused, and no one really shines. I get the notion this would work as a comic, but as a film, it just doesn’t ring true.

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