If a more elegant and succinct explanation of what compels some people to go to art school has ever been filmed, I haven't seen it. Terry Zwigoff's "Art School Confidential" begins with a steady, mostly silent (except for a rhythmic pounding of fist on nose) shot of a skinny kid getting his face bashed in by the school bully. Cut to the same kid standing in front of the class wearing a beret and a striped shirt, saying, "I am a genius. I am the greatest artist of the 20th century. I am Pablo Picasso," and the picture is complete. A portrait of the artist as a young man getting his face kicked in.
The second "Eightball" comic-inspired collaboration between cartoonist Daniel Clowes (who wrote the screenplay) and Zwigoff ("Crumb," "Ghost World"), "Art School Confidential" is based on Clowes' hilarious 1991 four-page screed against "the biggest scam of the century." It featured Clowes, a Pratt Institute graduate, as an undercover agent blowing the lid off "rich guys who draw worse than your 7-year-old sister," "has-been famous-artist professors who couldn't teach a dog to bark," "self-obsessed neurotic art-girls who make their own clothes" and "everybody's most dreaded model combo -- the hideous hirsute hippie girl and her freakish, poodle-haired boyfriend."
The movie takes a slightly more tempered (but only slightly), even melancholic view of an institution that in the old days, as Clowes explains in the comic (but not in the movie), "taught practical techniques to the eager, dedicated few who possessed the temperament to keep up with a demanding curriculum," but has devolved into a place where "anyone with a trust fund can excel in classes that are little more than vague pep talks designed to keep enrollment up." The movie still mercilessly pegs and catalogs the art student archetypes (a barefoot hippie girl steps out of the parental car and straight onto broken glass on the first day of school), as well as the embittered, never-were teachers (John Malkovich is dead-on as the married bisexual painter of triangles who can't get a show); the contemporary art world; superstar artists; empty-nest moms looking to get in touch with their creative sides and egotistic tastemakers (Steve Buscemi is Broadway Bob, whose cafe launches and loses every next big thing to come down the pike).
At least one of the art models is the beautiful, sophisticated Audrey (Sophia Myles), whose nude portrait appears in the college catalog, and who may be responsible for a good portion of every freshman class. Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) falls for the girl in the picture, as well as the picture of the school, but the Strathmore Institute (named after the sketch pads) is a crumbling manse in a borderline neighborhood where a serial killer has been hard at work.
On his first day at school, he meets his roommates, Matthew (Nick Swardson), a still-closeted fashion major, and Vince (Ethan Suplee), an obnoxious film major who talks to his grandfather like a film financier. (Which, naturally, he is.) He also befriends Bardo (Joel David Moore), a "gradual student," as they used to be called, who has switched majors and hung around long enough to have everybody pegged. It's Bardo who begins the work of dismantling Jerome's illusions, and introduces him to Jimmy (the excellent and truly terrifying Jim Broadbent), a raging, slivovitz-chugging failed artist (and Strathmore grad) with a serious misanthropic streak.
Jerome's growing disappointment with school -- he's arguably the most technically skilled in his class, and the most underappreciated -- reaches critical mass when class and teacher alike start heaping praise on the inept oeuvre of the freakishly mainstream Jonah (Matt Keeslar), who looks like a narc and paints like Grandma Moses. When Jonah attracts the simultaneous attention of Audrey and Broadway Bob, Jerome resorts to desperate measures -- the only kind that will get you anywhere in this milieu.
A low-key satire of the consensual illusion of art world success, "Art School Confidential" deftly evokes the peculiar, funny-sad heartbreak of the aspiring genius. As Professor Sandiford (Malkovich) tells his students on the first day of class, "If you want to make money, go to banking school or website school .... Only one in 100 of you will make a living in your chosen field." The movie omits my favorite line in the comic, because by then it doesn't need to be said. You can sense the thought bubble rising from the class's collective mind: "I'll be that one."
`Art School Confidential'
MPAA rating: Rated R for language including sexual references, nudity and a scene of violence
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Terry Zwigoff. Screenplay Daniel Clowes. Producers Lianne Halfonn, John Malkovich, Russell Smith. Director of photography Jamie Anderson. Editor Robert Hoffman. Music by David Kitay. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
In selected theaters.