Zwigoff’s follow-up to Ghost World needs sharper satire of Art School

By Matt Johnston

It is now time for you to learn the name of Max Minghella. He’s popped up here and there, as Flora Cross’s brother in Bee Season and as George Clooney’s son in Syriana, but now he takes the lead in Art School Confidential. By the looks of it, he has great potential to become this generation’s most overrated indie actor.

There are other paths available to Master Minghella, but things are not looking good. Here he plays Jerome, the type of bland protagonist who has no place in offbeat filmmaking. We want people—both characters and actors—who are alive and memorable. Neither Minghella nor Jerome fit the bill. If I am lucky, I might even remember them long enough to finish writing this review.

Art School Confidential was directed by Terry Zwigoff. Just that piece of information should send a little shiver down your spine. From the director of Ghost World and Bad Santa, we can expect many things, but a shy, unassuming number like this is not among them. Where is the audacious humor? Where is the intrigue? Where is the screenplay?

This new film is apparently a satire of art schools everywhere. It works pretty well on that level for quite a while. On the school’s opening day, we see a barefoot hippie girl stepping on glass and a guitar case falling open to reveal bongs. John Malkovich plays a professor who paints only triangles. Anjelica Huston plays a professor who has only three minutes of screen time, so who knows what she does. During one of her (two) scenes, at least she begins to respond to the cliched “Dead White Male” dismissal of Western art by pointing out that the artists were not dead at the time they created their works. This is familiar territory. The movie knows how familiar it is; one character classifies each member of a class as a well known artsy type, such as the angry lesbian and the kiss-ass. But ironic self-awareness only goes so far. At some point, Art School Confidential needs to do more than simply point out its own unoriginality.

For that, though, we’d need Jerome to be an articulate critic. He recognizes the contradictions of his surroundings, but each time he begins an argument with his fellow students, he works himself up into such a tizzy that the discussion ends. Because we already knew that the art Jerome criticizes is not very good, we need him to take us a step further by providing an interesting opinion about it.

According to this film, most everything done in an art school is lame, but we never find out what would be better. Jerome says that the abstract pieces look like they were drawn in five minutes. He’s right. The other students say that Jerome’s work looks like it was done by a computer. They’re right. End scene. It’s too easy to merely dismiss art. A good satire interacts with its subject matter on a deeper level than this.

But I am being unkind. Art School Confidential is a worthy effort. It’s not really very good, but its premise and spirit are such that you might enjoy it despite its flaws, or at least want so much to enjoy it that you feel guilty about writing a negative review.

I laughed. I was happy with Jim Broadbent’s turn as a drunken artist who trades advice for liquor. I smiled at accurate portrayals of silly practices in art and academia. But I wanted to see some teeth. The screenplay needs to do more than poke fun and despondently observe. Without courage, Art School Confidential is forgettable. It is a pleasant jaunt through familiarity that doesn’t ruffle feathers or offend our sensibilities. What a pity.