Inside the Lines

Clowes and Zwigoff upend the college comedy, then wreck it.

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Art School Confidential
John Malkovich makes a perfectly lame instructor.
John Malkovich makes a perfectly lame instructor.
Art School Confidential is very much like every movie pilfered from the Saturday Night Live playbook, stretching the slight giggles of a four-minute sketch into two-hour yawns. It's based on a four-page excerpt from Eightball, a 14-year-old comic book written and drawn by Dan Clowes, who wrote the screenplay for Terry Zwigoff's movie. The original piece was a goofy, clever lark about the freaks and geeks who populate art schools: the rich guys who "draw worse than your seven-year-old sister," the washed-up instructors who "couldn't teach a dog to bark," the "completely talentless" middle-aged mom with spare time and loose change who's trying to fulfill her long-suppressed artistic urges, and the skeevy models who dangle their flabby wares for crude, nude sketches. "I assumed it would be of no interest to anyone outside of a few of my old art-school friends, so I kept it very brief," Clowes writes in the published screenplay.

But it struck a chord with other disillusioned art-school vets, so Clowes fleshed out the original. For those of us who adore Clowes and Zwigoff's work, together and separately, news of their collaboration was reason for celebration. Their adaptation of Clowes' graphic novel Ghost World five years ago was smart, sly, and ultimately heartfelt -- it dripped with affection for its two outcast girls wrestling with teen emotions, angst, and stirrings. But Zwigoff needed little prompting: Clowes' original work had as much guts as heart; it was a comic book that felt more palpable than most documentaries. Then, for Zwigoff, came 2003's Bad Santa, which bore the smudge and grime of old underground comics; it was Little Rascals by way of Zwigoff's old pal and collaborator, Robert Crumb, all sexed up and screwed up in a thoroughly debauched and delightful way.

Art School Confidential tries to split the difference between its two predecessors: It's a coming-of-age tale dipped in smut and funk, a story of awakening and enlightenment that just wants to be a dirty joke. And it works for a while -- probably half the movie, during which it's a dingy, messy, sophomoric bit of fun, without pretending to be more than Animal House for the avant-comics set.

Jerome (Max Minghella) is a goofy, cocky twerp, who figures, like all high-school outsiders more likely to get punched than laid, that college will change his entire life. He's waiting for the moment he gets into Strathmore Institute, which has sent him a pamphlet full of pretty-girl promises. He keeps the Strathmore literature in his pocket, especially because of its picture of one girl: Audrey (Sophia Myles), she of unattainable movie-starlet beauty. If Strathmore also teaches him how to be a better painter, so much the better . . . but getting laid is the first order of business -- except that beatnik art chicks and seemingly innocent suburban girls prove no suitable replacement for Audrey. They're all just a different brand of nuts.

Clowes gets right a phenomenon that any student will recognize, because it's such a cliché: the teacher who teaches because there is no other viable option left. John Malkovich, as Professor Sandiford (who was painting triangles before anyone, he boasts), beautifully pegs that blank, defeated, don't-give-a-shit stare that every instructor gets when he realizes he's forever trapped, talking to kids who think they're better than he is (and probably are). "I don't have any great wisdom to impart to you people, other than these four magic words," he tells them: "Don't have unrealistic expectations." Further down the has-been food chain is drunken master Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), who's rotting away in his squalid apartment while zoned out on slivovitz.

But just as the movie settles into a nice, nasty-with-a-grin rhythm -- Jerome finds a screw-up buddy in cynical, scared dropout Bardo (Joel David Moore); he meets and befriends Audrey, who introduces him to a sophisticated, grown-up world of art and commerce -- it takes a dreadfully wrong turn toward nothing less than a murder mystery involving a campus serial killer. It's there from the very beginning, but only hinted at -- used as a joke, not the very plot device that hijacks the movie at the halfway point and steers it wildly off course before crashing into a predictable payoff.

Clowes is trying to say something about the value of art, about how only the stupendously undeserving and egregiously hackneyed garner the adoration and fortunes that belong to The Truly Great. But so what? Infamy's always been more valuable than fame; it lasts longer and brings more at auction. Art School Confidential is so much better when it plays like a dirty joke with some heart (like Bad Santa, which only pretended it didn't care) -- when it satirizes and damns and even gives little pecks on the cheek to an experience that made Clowes what he is (or isn't, whatever). But as soon as it tries to be about something -- as soon as it stops entertaining and starts judging -- the grin collapses into a grimace. It all feels so fetid, so familiar, and the outside-the-lines masterpiece turns into one more connect-the-dots commodity.

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