I think American Dreamz director Paul Weitz should see this before he ventures to make another film. Weitz’s mistake in Dreamz was the fact that the audience was laughing at the characters for the wrong reasons. For instance, I laughed/didn’t at the George W. Bush knock-off for the simple fact that that’s what he was. I never really saw the character as a real character. All I thought was “Ha! That’s what Bush would do!” I didn’t think that anything about the character was clever or didn’t recognize anything deeper in him that I could connect with.
The characters in Terry Zwigoff’s Art School Confidential are real characters. They have their own quirks and qualities about them, and don’t just imitate other people/things/situations. Like another great satire to have come out this year – Thank You for Smoking, this film’s characters might be based on a certain group of people in the real world, but they are also original creations, not vapid rip-offs of others.
Using the word ‘vapid’ here might actually describe what some of the characters in Art School Confidential are, because as Zwigoff did in his previous efforts – 1994’s Crumb, 2001’s Ghost World, and 2003’s Bad Santa – he gives the film a darker edge, mixing humor with offensive and at times, brutal actions by the characters themselves. It is that type of filmmaking that sets Zwigoff and his long-time partner, screenwriter Daniel Clowes, that intrigues me and creates a comedy worth watching over and over. Another positive aspect I can recall about all of Zwigoff’s films is how his satirical targets are not as obvious as most films’. Even the excellent Thank You for Smoking took shots at an obvious group of people.
In this film Zwigoff satirizes art school students. While this might make it harder for most people to connect with the film (especially people who are not or never have been or never plan to be art school students), Zwigoff still tackles some universal themes that almost everyone can connect with like ambition, pity, how unfair life is, and virginity. It is definitely a big film trying to tackle many subjects and it tackles them well, unlike American Dreamz. Satirizing a whole art school requires some creativity and Cowles’s script definitely delivers. While he never paints it with broad strokes (pun not intended) he does make it a school were pretentious ‘artists’ who simply draw geometric shapes are applauded for their simple, but arguably abstract pieces of ‘art.’
The main character is, unsurprisingly, a student of the art school by the name of Jerome (the talented Max Minghella who made his wonderful debut in Bee Season) who is there not only to better his talents, but also to lose his virginity. He falls for Audrey (the amazingly beautiful Sophia Myles who made a fine debut in Tristan & Isolde) as she is posing nude for one of the art professors – Professor Standiford (John Malkovich) but she never responds to his advances and treats their relationship more as a brother/sister one, rather than a sexual one. Other people in Jerome’s life include Jimmy (Jim(my) Broadbent) a mad (literally) old man who thinks that everyone and everything in the world are hypocrites. Add a roommate (Joel Moore) who wants to make movies some day, but can only think of cliche ideas, and you’ve got yourself a good replica of art school college life. Except for the fact that there is a serial killer on the loose who has already killed five people. The mere fact that last ridiculous plot point works as well as it does says something about how good the script is.
The film sends many messages and crosses many genres. While Zwigoff tries to send a message about the egotistical behavior of actors, he is also constructing a love triangle between Jerome, Aubrey, and Jonah (Matt Keelsar) a successful poser who takes away Jerome’s thunder and is threatening to take away his girl too, before he gets to lose his virginity.
The acting is great across the board. Max Minghella does a good job, but his character is nowhere near as complex as the one he has in Bee Season. Sophia Myles does not only possess an amazing body, but also an amazingly good talent of switching from mysterious to innocent as the character frequently calls for. Jim Broadbent plays an amazing angry person and he hasn’t been this frightening since Moulin Rouge! John Malkovich is also better than he was in this year’s The Libertine but that’s still not saying much. But don’t look for audiences to complain about his performance.
On the technical side the film is great. The artwork, whenever it’s on screen, has some great colors and it can actually be observed. Other than that, cinematographer Jamie Anderson’s well-known style of shooting comedies will not surprise anyone and won’t call attention to itself. The editing by Robert Hoffman is good, and while not as tight as it should be, it serves the endless details in the film well. The one negative here is the cliche score by David Kitay, but even then, it doesn’t call enough attention to itself to make a bad impression.
Overall I recommend this film strongly to anyone who found Zwigoff’s past projects entertaining and original. Obviously, if you don’t enjoy his cynical view of life and his ludicrous decisions to make everything bad beyond belief, you will hate this film. But the truth is that the dark Wilder-esque edge Zwigoff gives his films is a breath of fresh air and it’s always rewarding to watch a motion picture that displays a hateful attitude on the surface, but has a touching message just below it. Definitely Recommended.