"Art School was to me what Vietnam was to Oliver Stone," writer Daniel Clowes says in a making-of feature. What a great line! And that gives you just a sample of the wit and wisdom of a confessed art nerd who's parlayed his experience into one of the most bitingly satirical but disarmingly charming indie films to come out in the past few years. It didn't win any awards, but I'm thinking maybe it should have.
What Clowes calls "a little fantasy that I wrote about myself" works surprisingly well on three different levels. It's a quirky, comedic murder mystery. It's a cinematic Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story about a naïve suburban art student who learns that the art world isn't at all based on talent. And perhaps most of all, it's a penetrating, right-on satire of the art community and the artsy academic crowd. To twist that wonderful quote from Clowes, "Art School Confidential" is to the academic art world what "Wonder Boys" was to the academic literary world. Some of the lines, characters, and incidents are so revealingly perfect that if you've see any part of this world you'll recognize it in this film by director Terry Zwigoff ("Crumb," "Bad Santa").
British actor Max Minghella loses his accent to play Jerome Platz, the wide-eyed hero who isn't all Mom and apple pie. Part of the reason this kid who kept getting beaten up in grade school wants to be an artist is because he thinks it'll help him get any girl he wants. Tell that to fellow Brit Sophia Myles, who plays Audrey Baumgarten, the nude model that Jerome falls brush-over-palette in love with. To her, he's just another art nerd, and she ought to know. Her father is a celebrated pop artist, so she's grown up with this stuff, and is almost as jaded as the art teachers at Strathmore.
Producer John Malkovich steps in front of the camera to play one of those teachers—an effete wannabe who never was, someone who takes pride in being "one of the first" to paint plain old triangles on canvas and can't figure out why the art world hasn't been knocking on his door to try to land him for a big show. Malkovich has a tendency to be overly intense, but this time he's appropriately subdued—perhaps because the character he's playing is already a poser. Anjelica Huston gets fourth billing, but she really just has a don't-blink part as one of the teachers who tries to get you to think, and ends up having to defend "dead white males" to a class of highly politicized feminists.
"My Name is Earl" fans will find it funny that Ethan Supplee plays Vince, an older film student who never seems to graduate and always has a story to tell about the way things are in the art-school world. His roommate, Bardo, has got it all down to types, including the suburban girl, the hippie, the vegan, and the kiss-ass. As the students "learn" both inside and outside of the classroom, a strangler has been killing people in the area—but the art-world politics can be just as deadly. In this nerdy urban painter version of "Survivor," only one at semester's end will win a show at Broadway Bob's, who's "discovered" just about every ungrateful artist that's gone on to bigger and better things and forgotten their first show and poor old Bob (Steve Buscemi).
One of the funniest scenes comes when the Strathmore Art School gets an obligatory guest visit from one of its most successful alums, a painter who's arrogant and dismissive of the whole process now that he's risen above it all. His posturing is hilarious, the sort of stuff I personally have witnessed at lectures and Q/A sessions like this. Even the surprise question from the audience, "Why are you such an asshole?," is darned close to something I saw at one of these academic functions. Same with the parties and the classroom dynamics.
All three threads—the coming of age story, the murder mystery, and the art world satire—come together pretty satisfyingly at the end, while the middle is so fun that you're in no hurry to get to act three. Jim Broadbent turns in another slightly twisted performance as an alcoholic alum who tries to teach the wide-eyed Jerome how it really is. But he's getting that sort of candid advice from so many people that you can tell that he, like every other art student, has no idea what's true and what's not. Even one student turns out to be a lie, sort of. But with three threads, there's no waiting. Something seems to catch your interest every sequence.
Video: "Art House Confidential" is mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Though there's slight grain in spots, the overall quality is quite good, and the colors have the kind of saturation you'd expect for a film that's dealing with a visual medium and storyline.
Audio: The audio options are English, Spanish, and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 or a French Dolby Surround. Now, call me dimwitted, but isn't that a little weird, given the association that the French have with high art? Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese. Most of the film is dialogue so it's hard to tell, really, how strong the sound is, but in musical interludes you hear a full, whole sound that has a decent balance between treble and bass notes and among the five speakers in your surround-sound system.
Extras: There's no commentary, which is too bad, because this is one film that you'd have no problem watching again with a voiceover. But you have to settle for a making-of feature, a Sundance feature, 12 deleted scenes, an additional scene, and a blooper reel.
The making-of feature is the best of the bunch, with plenty of insights despite the fact that it feels like a promotional video. The Sundance featurette has a true documentary feel insomuch as the editing isn't heavy-handed at all and there's zero voiceover. One of the funniest moments comes during a Q/A session when someone shouts at the writer, already illustrating the iconic power of some of the lines in the film, "Why are you such an asshole?" The deleted scenes are pretty standard, and we can tell just by looking at them why they were cut. Some were axed because of time constraints, but others were obviously cut because they belabored a point and insulted the audience's intelligence. Overall, the extras are fun to watch, but again, fans of the film will wish for a commentary track.
Bottom Line: "Art School Confidential" is one of those pleasant surprises that makes you remember why movies are made . . . and watched. The performances are strong, the script is interesting, and the tone and between-the-lines commentary is as funny as some of the lines themselves.