- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

In the dark comedy “Art School Confidential,” Terry Zwigoff returns to a familiar subject — contempt.

In the director’s first nondocumentary film, “Ghost World,” the viewer was allowed to share in the withering disdain that informed Thora Birch’s teen outcast Enid. In “Art School Confidential,” the contempt radiates from the characters toward each other, toward the film itself and its own limitations, and outward toward the audience.

In broad strokes, it is the story of Jerome Platz (played by Max Minghella), a darkly handsome, brooding naif who aspires to become the greatest artist of the 21st century — less because he is burning with creative desire than because he wishes to shed his identity as suburban loser and attain renown and its attendant female attention. When he arrives at Strathmore Academy, seemingly a stand-in for Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, he finds the dilapidated campus beset by competitive students, pretentious faculty and — oh, yes — a serial killer known as the “Strathmore Strangler.”

The depiction of the art school is so paint-by-numbers in its satire that Mr. Zwigoff requires a character to mediate it. In the first-year drawing class, a ratty slacker and perpetual dropout named Bardo, played by Joel David Moore, introduces Jerome to the students in the form of stereotypes: There is the Vegan Holy Man, the Angry Lesbian and, most odious of all, the Future Critic. Jerome also encounters the appallingly pretentious Professor Sandiford (played with dry self-satisfaction by John Malkovich), the studly, out-of-place jock Jonah, whose awful paintings are hailed by the class as a triumph of the primitive, and campus babe Audrey, the daughter of a famous artist who works as an artist’s model.

The film gleams with disdain when Audrey first poses for Jerome. In a droll parody of artistic inspiration, recalling similar scenes in “Titanic” and “As Good as It Gets,” the shots cross-fade Audrey’s shapely form with Jerome’s furious scribbling and his intense gaze, set to the swells of Brahms. Yet the only epiphany here is Jerome’s intense engagement with his own narcissistic personality; finally, he has discovered a form worthy of his talent. It is a darkly comic moment, but also a false lead designed to draw an unsuspecting audience into the story of a sensitive, tortured soul breathing free for the first time.

Strangely, it is this very contempt for the audience, for the characters, for the notion that art is anything else but selfish in its motivation and execution that makes the film curiously watchable, even as the clumsy plot involving the serial killer, a police investigation and a cynical old failed artist ably played by Jim Broadbent, hurtles to a fairly predictable conclusion.

Although turns by Angelica Huston as an aging faculty vamp and Steve Buscemi as the proprietor of an off-campus coffee shop are wasted, the first half of the movie contains some very funny set pieces, and a terrifically understated performance by Jack Ong as a grumpy, ponytailed ceramics professor whose contempt for the students and his faculty colleagues is well-founded.

**

TITLE: “Art School Confidential”

RATING: R (male frontal nudity, violence, language)

CREDITS: Written by Daniel Clowes and directed by Terry Zwigoff. Cinematography by Jamie Anderson

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.

com/artschoolconfidential/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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