Film Review: Art School Confidential

I have a confession to make. I once watched the directors’ commentary for Scary Movie 3. I don’t have much to say in my defense for this act. I was mystified as to why I enjoy that movie so much (come to think of it, I still am) and I was hoping the directors might have something to say that would clue me in as to why a person like me would want to watch Scary Movie 3 over and over again. Because I did. As a matter of fact I’ve had a hankering to re-watch it recently, there may be a review of that one in the near future. Anyway. The directors’ commentary didn’t really help me in my personal quest for self-knowledge, but in the commentary for the deleted scenes, one of the directors made an observation about humor that I found quite pithy. The director was pointing out how much of the deleted material was a parody of one of the Incredible Hulk movies. That material hadn’t gone over well with the test audience; they’d had to scrap it and write an entirely different ending. What the director observed was that people only enjoy parody of material they already like. That particular Hulk movie had bombed at the box office and because people didn’t like the original movie, the parody just wasn’t going to fly.

Why am I baring my critic’s soul regarding this particular anecdote? Because it’s completely relevant to my experience of Art School Confidential, a comedy that parodies art school culture. Within the first few minutes, I was starting to roll my eyes at jokes that I’m sure would be hilarious to someone who had actually gone to art school, but were simply not relevant to my life. I mean, half of my Bachelor’s degree is in Theatre Arts… but it was acquired at a Big Ten university, not an art school. There’s a difference in mentality that this film simply does not try to meet an outsider to art school culture even halfway on, let alone genuinely bridge. If it weren’t for the fact that I acquired the other half of that Bachelor’s degree in English with the hope of writing novels, and therefore could relate to the film’s protagonist regarding other challenges faced by creators of art whether it be textual or visual, I don’t know that I would have found very much of this film worth paying attention to.

Plot

Beware professors that offer to help you experiment with different lifestyles!
Beware professors that offer to help you experiment with different lifestyles!

Art School Confidential follows art college freshman Jerome, who has been investing time and energy into learning classic drawing techniques throughout his previous school years, and who has at least a measure of talent as well as technique. Jerome meets a variety of walking art school cliches as he attempts to woo Audrey, a beautiful model who has, in addition to a beautiful body, a famous artist for a father and many contacts in the New York City art scene. Jerome is thwarted in his wooing by Audrey’s interest in Jonah, a conventionally handsome man whose contributions to Jerome’s classes seem immensely amateurish to him and display little technique, but which cause Jerome’s other classmates (not to mention his professor, played capably by John Malkovich) to go ga-ga for Jonah. Meanwhile, the rough, tough neighborhood that houses the art school (Strathmore Institute) is stalked by a murderous criminal called the “Strathmore Strangler.” Desperate for attention, Jerome attempts to incorporate the local crimes into the material he presents for his final project. The results are either tragic or wonderful for Jerome – it’s all in the interpretation…

In case you couldn’t tell from the preceding paragraph, Art School Confidential skimps on plot. The plot exists only to carry the audience from cliche to private joke to in-reference to cliche again, and is highly implausible, particularly in the way it handles the identity of Jonah. I will give the film’s creators props on one score – they do a good job of keeping the identity of the Strathmore Strangler in the dark for as long as it is appropriate to the plot for it to be kept in the dark. Apart from that, their job on this aspect of the film is unremarkable.

Characters

This cliche gets a lot of play in the film.
This cliche gets a lot of play in the film.
This guy, not so much, but his few lines are memorable.
This guy, not so much, but his few lines are memorable.

Art School Confidential really banks on its audience finding its portrayals of the type of people who like to go to art school to be hilarious. But if your reaction to these stereotypes is, like mine, something along the lines of “Meh, I guess there are people like that in the world… I don’t spend much time with them but they have some valuable stuff to say…” you really aren’t going to get much out of the portrayal of the characters. I mean, I would have enjoyed Art School Confidential a lot more if it had spent more time going over the content of Jerome’s classes and less time lampooning his classmates. I found the tension between Professor Sandiford’s nuanced understanding of how art works and his mediocre paintings of modern-art triangles way more fun to watch than “Beatnik Girl” cycling in rapid succession between crying, screaming, and giggling. I wanted more attention paid to artistic techniques and the value of criticism, and way less focus on Jerome’s quest to get laid.

Themes

Take it off, Audrey!
Take it off, Audrey!

But I guess it makes sense that Art School Confidential would devote such, ahem, loving attention to Jerome’s sex life. I mean, even at a Big Ten university, I devoted way more energy in my undergraduate years to finding a romantic partner than I devoted to my classes, and so much is made of the interplay between art and passion (culturally speaking), I would think that at a school with concentrated artistry, there would be concentrated passion as well. However, I’m now at a point in my life where stories that have as their plot conceit the question of “Will these two characters hook up?” have limited value. That time in my life is over and watching someone else caught in its throes is tedious for me now. Fortunately, there were brief interludes that dealt with challenges other than romantic angst. Most of these interludes involved Malkovich as Professor Sandiford trying to network with fellow faculty or figures in the local art scene, and failing miserably. I wanted more of that subplot. I also wanted more screen time to be spent on the actual art. One thing that Art School Confidential did as a film that it could not have done as a text narrative such as a novella was to provide visual examples of the art that its characters were referring to. It was fun to actually see the drawing that Jerome’s classmates were holding up as displaying “humanity” and contrasting with his more technically proficient drawing which they claimed looked like it “could have been done by a machine”. But Art School Confidential did not really explore its full capacity to do this. An art school isn’t just a collection of students – it’s also a collection of art. This film assumed that its audience would be more interested in the students than in what they produced. When it came to this particular audience member, that was a big mistake.

Watch Art School Confidential if you went to art school. Then again, if you went to art school, you’ve probably seen this film long before reading this review. If you never went to art school, you might like this one if you always wanted to go, or if you’ve always had a curiosity about what going to art school would be like. Otherwise, you can probably skip this one. Might I suggest you rent Scary Movie 3 instead? Not 1 or 2. Just 3.

Overall Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

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