Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Neurotic art students meet an even more neurotic John Malkovich

Illustration for article titled Neurotic art students meet an even more neurotic John Malkovich

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The release of yet another superhero movie, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, has us thinking back on stellar adaptations of non-superhero comics.

Art School Confidential (2006)

Terry Zwigoff’s second collaboration with cartoonist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes, Art School Confidential, is doomed to suffer by comparison to the team’s first effort, Ghost World. And by some lights, that reputation is fair. Take Max Minghella’s diffident performance in the lead role of Jerome, an aspiring artist who wants to create timeless works so that he can get laid. Minghella’s work here is forgettable on its own merits; it shrinks further alongside Thora Birch’s parallel depiction of post-high school disillusionment in Ghost World. But the movie’s failings on the whole are offset somewhat by its sardonic pleasures in miniature.


Confidential wears its graphic-novel origins even more plainly than Ghost World. It eschews the forward drive of a typical three-act structure in favor of Clowes’ more laid-back storytelling style, which implicitly sketches a narrative arc while fixating on characters and situations. “Art School Confidential” was originally a mere four-page comic that mocked the clichéd hang-ups of fine-art students and faculty, and Clowes’ script is at its best when it expands on those neuroses. The crit sessions in Jerome’s class are prime displays of psychological warfare—the kind that inevitably ensues when you ask fragile, competitive college kids to judge each other’s work.

The students’ craziness is mild compared to the professors, though, who possess the same fragility without the advantage of having their whole lives ahead of them. John Malkovich is consistently entertaining as a teacher on the verge of giving up. (The ignorant denizens of the art world show little interest in his severe, minimalist paintings of triangles, even though he protests that it took him “25 years to paint something that great.”) Anjelica Huston, also playing a professor, gets too little screen time, but she makes the most of it: When one of her students criticizes her curriculum for focusing on the work produced by “dead white guys,” for instance, Huston hits the perfect note of sly condescension as she observes that the white guys weren’t dead at the time.

These miniature pleasures may be slight comfort when Confidential goes slack in the middle, but the ho-hum serial killer subplot—awkwardly bolted on to the art school setting for much of the film—is worthwhile for its smart payoff. The final 15 minutes have echoes of Scorsese’s coda to The King Of Comedy, although Confidential is both sillier and more simply cynical. In a roundabout way, the film’s intermittent quality ends up being a strength: The central message, after all, is that creating “successful” art is a sucker’s game, so Zwigoff and Clowes’ lapses ultimately serve to drive their point home.

Availability: Art School Confidential is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, or to rent or purchase from the major digital services.

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