Unnecessary Movie Review: Art School Confidential

In which I finally watch a DVD I’ve owned for years, long after doing so could have any meaning.

Why Did I Buy It?

I was psyched when this was out in theaters in 2005. Its producer/director (Terry Zwigoff) made Crumb, which I love. I mean love: Crumb is #34 on my list of favorite DVDs. And he’d teamed up once before with this writer (Daniel Clowes) to make Ghost World, which is #120—not too shabby! But the minute this movie showed itself in theaters, word spread that it was bad, so all my moviegoing friends suddenly had hair to wash that night. I sighed and moved on. CUT TO: Years later I saw what instantly became my favorite Doctor Who episode, The Girl in the Fireplace. I looked up the Girl and noted she was also in Art School Confidential. Days later I found the DVD used for six dollars.

Why’d I Never Watch It?

As I walked out of the store, a friend called. I told her I was psyched I’d just bought Art School Confidential. Her reaction was “No! Don’t!” And she was exactly the friend who’d like a movie about art school. Cautioned, on that same walk home I called a second friend. He said, “Oh God. You own that now?” I tried to explain that the Girl in the Firepl— “Seriously, no matter who you think is going to be good in it,” he said, “You’ll be sorry.”

Now, Thanks to Cassmasterflash’s Game of Life of Broken Dreams, I Know What I’ve Been Missing.

The movie opens on a 6th-grader named Jerome getting punched like crazy by playground bullies. I guess it’s comical, because the sound effects are Rocky-sized while his face looks undamaged. But not TOO comical, because bullying is a Serious Issue and he looks miserable and we must sympathize with our hero. Later, he draws a picture of himself dumping poop on the bullies—sweet useless revenge!—which of course wins him only more punches, in a style that would cause blood and possibly coma if this movie tried being real. Which it doesn’t.

So what is it trying? Like, Jerome’s poop drawing IS real. It’s pretty much all you’d expect from a kid, or it’s even less (maybe you’d expect it from a kid in 3rd or 4th grade?). But I don’t think we’re really meant to notice the drawing. We’re just supposed to let it signal that the movie is going to be about his revenge on the world, I guess? Past that I’m not sure. (Incidentally, that is not what the movie ends up being about.)  Are we supposed to think, “Ha, great poop drawing! This kid’s a riot!”?  Seems unlikely.  The poop drawing does not transcend its straight-from-the-mind-of-a-kid-ness.

Which might be okay, but in the NEXT scene Jerome is giving a report to class and he definitely transcends being 11. It’s one of those reports where you dress like the person and “talk about yourself,” which means deliver your report first person, e.g., “I basically invented modern art” instead of “Picasso invented it.” Okay sure, but this results in our hero (age 11 or 12) explaining that Picasso is great because even though he’s short and bald, being a great artist means—well, look:

At 00:01:35, this movie just set a record. The whole works off the rails in fastest time. No 11-year-old bully-target stands in front of his class to talk about how great it’s going to be to get laid. Seriously wtf is this movie hoping to be? But there you go: in 95 seconds you’ve already got all the problems of motive, humor, stuff you’re not supposed to think about, shaky acting, what kind of reality, and painful dialog that will plague the rest of your minutes here. Wheee.

Anyway, we jump to high school. Naturally Jerome is trying to get into girls’ pants by drawing them. But naturally the girls only dig the jerks. And the jerks spend their spare time yelling at Jerome, “Hey queerbait!” Zoof, everyone in this movie who is not an artist will spend his 8 seconds onscreen yelling “Hey homo!”

Let us imagine for a moment a Hypothetical Fan of this movie. The Fan will explain these excesses by saying “Ah, the movie is weaving an exaggerated reality, creating a whole world that is not our own but that reflects the values of our own writ large.” Luckily I have a counterargument: No.

Because any fake reality depends on consistency. Whatever the rules are, stick to them. You can’t suddenly say but this one vampire doesn’t sparkle, or this dragon that follows Calisi just one day doesn’t. You can’t painstakingly establish FOR EXAMPLE that your hero suffers debilitating shyness with cute girls and then have him confidently grab his dream girl’s hand and say “Let’s get out of here.” NOT EVEN IF HE NEEDS TO DO THAT BECAUSE IF HE DOESN’T THERE’S NO PLOT. Think of a different way to have a plot. Abide by your rules, or you don’t have an exaggerated reality, you have a dumb mess.

But that’s what this movie is, throughout: Whatever the preset plot needs, that’s what the characters do. Shy guy isn’t shy for one minute so he can get the girl, check. Angry defensive drunk lets all his defenses down for two seconds so the shy guy can overpower him, check. Worldly chick sheds all personality to fall for zero, supercheck. There’s no point in paying attention to any character’s personality or arc because it will just change when the plot needs it to.

John Malkovich (Jerome’s teacher) gets stuck with one of the hardest scenes because he has to tag three plot points in three minutes and each one requires a completely different mood. It is more like a dare than a scene. First Jerome walks in and overhears him on the phone – that’s how we learn that even the best teacher is failing as an artist, because a gallery is turning him down; Malkovich is hurt and furious. Then, as if that didn’t happen, he gives Jerome the friendly, inspirational speech needed to put our hero onto experimenting with different painting styles (so that Jerome can fail at that and make worse decisions). THEN, that achieved, Malkovich puts his hand on Jerome’s knee very suggestively, because the plot also needs Jerome to continue feeling alienated with no place to turn. Oh, yeah, and: there’s been no previous hint that the teacher is into boys, and there’s no subsequent hint of it. It is just made up on the spot, does its plot job, and gets dropped.

Okay, while we’re on a gay moment, let’s go back to all that “Hey homo!” yelling. Clearly, this move wants you to understand it is very upset that the world will yell “Fag!” at its sensitive types. So, when the movie presents its gay characters, WHY does it make them angry mulleted dykes and mincing lads? Every time! The movie REALLY wants you to know exactly who the real homos are. They might as well be wearing pink stars. No thuggish moron in the movie points and yells “Fag!” as much as the movie itself does, and that is sort of weird. (Also, there’s a whole angry conversation about how becoming a successful artist requires you to be good at fellatio, which I think is meant metaphorically, but either way, here is my question: ?????????)

I guess this as good a place as any to recap the plot. Let’s do it fast, in 3 paragraphs.

(1) Jerome enrolls at Strathmore Art College because a girl in the brochure is pretty. Most of his fellow students are assholes; a famous alum who visits (Adam Scott for no reason) is the biggest asshole of all, and he gives a speech about how being an asshole is crucial to being a true artist. Jerome’s eyes light up at this, but he never acts on it, so the advice is there just for you the viewer to run with. Then, as one does in college, Jerome meets the girl in the brochure. Her name is Audrey and she is genuinely interesting, mainly because of an intense scene with her dad (which the movie never follows up on). Jerome decides she is his muse. She starts dating a better-looking classmate with a more convincing personality, but Jerome paints her a bunch anyway.

(2) His fellow students hate his art. Craving approval, he stops painting Audrey to paint the abstract stuff everyone else is into. But then they deride him as having no style of his own. So, for the Big Art Show Final, he steals a bunch of paintings from a forgotten recluse downtown and passes them off as his own. These depict dead bodies, so now everyone hates Jerome for trying to look tough. Sad, he goes to the roof to jump off, and that’s when cops arrest him for being a serial killer. Obviously the recluse was a serial killer, and his paintings are mixed-media things that include stuff like the victims’ hair and driver’s licenses. Hahah, busted.  Oh—almost forgot, during the Big Art Show Final, Audrey the former muse spots one of Jerome’s original paintings in a trashpile, digs it out, and finally she falls in love.

(3) Too late. Jerome goes to jail. Because, see, he refuses to say he didn’t paint the murder stuff. He’s a famous (serial killer) artist now, and whatever he paints (on death row) is worth a twagillion dollars. Audrey visits to talk on the prison phone. They kiss through the glass. The end.

I know.

I feel like you get the idea (don’t see this movie), but I can’t stop. Here’s a quick list of details this movie couldn’t be bothered to get right, or offkilter world rules it didn’t make up right—or something.  I really have no idea what these are:

This movie was made in 2005 and people use cell phones, but just as often they use pay phones. Students read newspapers made out of newspaper. There’s no Internet. People smoke indoors, not just in bars but also classrooms. Jerome begs to get into an exclusive party and the host refuses – only to finally break down and hire him as the event’s bartender? Hoegaarden, an imported beer, has a twist-off cap. Cops take photos of evidence and then have to “wait for the blowups to come back.” There’s a Halloween party where everyone’s costume is half-assed and witless at an art college. And the college has mandatory gym class.

Last thing: there is a scene where Audrey walks into a cafe, pours a coffee, and leaves without paying. I don’t think it’s a Tak-All-U-Want, because I don’t think those exist. I’d say they just needed her to enter and see Jerome there (“I guess let’s have her want coffee”) and then they realized that having her pay would take too long (“Let’s just have her say her line and exit; it’s okay, no one will notice”). And by all appearances that is how this whole movie was made.

Closing Argument

Gavel Bang! Rank It!

There’s a great part when Jerome is incompetently bartending and a guy walks up and says, “I’d like a Martell” and then stands there waiting with a skeptical look on his face that is GOLD. I laughed and laughed at this guy. Malkovich and Sophia Myles do nice stuff with what they’ve been handed, and there’s some dialog that sounds like actual art-people talking to each other. Almost every scene turns annoying before it ends but, magically, there’s much worse on my shelf. I rank this DVD #396, after AI: Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg’s 4-hour examination of the feelings of a Roomba) and above Lost In Space (at least Lacey Chabert is super fuckable oops just cute not 18 yet). In other words, we’re down in the bottom 10%, but not all the way down. I award it seven Rotting on death row in deserved obscurities.

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About hotspur

hotspur is the videogum name of Luke Rooney, who usually makes the Kessel Run in 17 or 18 parsecs because, like, what is the rush? We will get to Kessel when we get to Kessel, just sit down and enjoy the run for chrissakes.
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19 Responses to Unnecessary Movie Review: Art School Confidential

  1. Wait, it seriously ends with him going to jail? Because I was all ready to complain about yet another “nice guy” protagonist we’re clearly supposed to sympathize with even though all he does is whine about how women won’t sleep with him (you know, like he deserves!), (and of course the way-out-of-his-league love interest doesn’t understand that they’re supposed to be together because ladies, amirite? Never knowing our own minds!–until she realizes he, like, like likes her and then her libido does an instant 180 because that’s exactly how feelings work)…but if he actually ends up in jail, then I’m somewhat mollified.

    • hotspur says:

      Yes, but remember: he goes to jail and she becomes his GF anyway. Maybe becoming GF to a “nice guy” would be much better than her fate, which is to become GF (and muse) to a “famous guy who is not that nice and is in jail for killing people (just not the people he actually killed).” I don’t know, it’s a gray area! One thing not in dispute, however, is that nothing we have seen in her personality would result in her making this decision. She just does it because the plot needs her to. Hooray!

      • Eh, I know her type. She’ll bump into an Uptight Young Professional on the street, causing him to spill his coffee on his new suit, and they will be incredibly obnoxious to each other for around 80 minutes, until not-at-all convoluted circumstances force them to either get drunk in an enclosed space or pretend to be married at a social function. Then they’ll bone, freak out about it the next morning, but THEN realize they’re in love and live happily ever after even though they still have absolutely nothing in common.

  2. Commentatrix says:

    THAT took a turn!

  3. old man fatima says:

    Hooooooold on. Is this a romantic comedy about keeping a mentally disturbed serial killer on the streets? I remember people I went to art school with (FELLAS) making a big deal out of this movie but I never saw it because I didn’t like movies about art school (ugh, Ghost World). And I can’t remember if the big deal they made about it was good or bad. Bad, I’m guessing.

    • …I am dumb and totally missed that, but you’re right! Now the real killer will just keep on keepin’ on. Wow. It sounds like they were aiming for “dark, subversive comedy” and ended up with “a group of complete assholes exist in the same general vicinity for a while.”

    • hotspur says:

      Good question. Permitting a known killer free reign to murder and paint would be irresponsible. So you will be pleased to hear that when Jerome steals the paintings, he accidentally drops his cigarette on the rug. Later that night, the killer dies in a house fire. It is very lucky both for Jerome and Everyone.

      (Actually, all the people who lived in the apartment building also die, so Jerome is an accidental mass murderer. He reacts to this factoid in his usual way –mouth slightly agape. Actually the lower-left picture in the mouth-agape collage shows him learning he has killed many people.)

      Also, Ghost World is okay! It felt off the first time I saw it, but in a way that prompted me to rewatch. It (for me) definitely improved on 2nd look.

      • old man fatima says:

        Hold on again, he killed an entire apt complex’s worth of people and you left that out of your review? Also, who the fuck wrote this movie??

        • hotspur says:

          I had to make hard editing choices. If I told you everything wrong with this movie you would still be reading the review.

  4. Casey says:

    Agape Mouth guy looks like he went to the Zach Braff School of Having a Face, amirite?

  5. catweazle says:

    Wow, that is not what I thought that movie would be about! I love Ghost World and also came perilously close to seeing this but the bad reviews kept me away thank goodness.

    • mydumbopiniongoeshere says:

      All I ever knew about the quality of this movie is that my grandfather gave it one star on netflix, which is actually kind of a positive.

  6. Sota says:

    Wait…is that actor Danny Castellano’s little brother from The Mindy Project?

  7. artdorkgirl says:

    I remember the reviews for this being bad, but I don’t know that they ever went into detail about why. YOWZA. I will say, however, that this does seem like some sort of half-baked plot a first year art student might come up with, so…um… maybe this whole movie was a performance piece?

    • Sota says:

      Not enough suicide attempts to be a full on art performance piece. That sounds terrible..I know. But when I was an art major (humblebrag), it seemed like everything that was even remotely depressed/suicidal got A’s. I was always just too happy for all that depressing art.

  8. facetaco says:

    And now I really want to see this. So thanks for that. Homo.

  9. mordonez says:

    I was wondering to myself when you announced this, “self, didn’t you see this?”

    As it turns out, I certainly did, and had almost entirely blocked it out. Thanks for re-awakening these memories, that was swell of you. I would note that I had also forgotten what was so awful about it, and now I know in case it ever comes up, so that is helpful?

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