The evidence is starting to pile up that Terry Zwigoff's movies are like lightning in a bottle, impossible to successfully re-create even if a preponderance of the elements seem to be back in place. Reteaming star Billy Bob Thornton with writers Glen Ficarra and John Requa couldn't make The Bad News Bears a patch on Bad Santa (as director Richard Linklater all too rapidly found out), and now we have discomfortingly strong proof that even Zwigoff himself can't properly remake one of his own films. (This skirts the question of whether he should be trying in the first place.) Art School Confidential exhibits so many cosmetic similarities to Zwigoff's bravura 2001 Ghost World that it practically qualifies as a sequel: foundation in a graphic novel by Dan Clowes; irascible turn by supporting actor Steve Buscemi; loony art class filled with pretentious PC no-hopers. Art class? Yep, the Illeana Douglas'led parade of aesthetic self-deception that was such an effective interlude in GW is here elevated to main-story status, and all it does is prove that some things are subordinate for a reason.
You have to wonder how much Zwigoff and Clowes (who once again adapts his own comics material) expect us to share their apparently boundless derision for the unimaginative drones of this nation's visual academies ' somewhere along the line, the edict 'write what you knowâ?� has to be tempered by 'remember that your life is not everyone else's.â?� Art School works best in its unabashedly comedic first act, in which an innocent freshman named Jerome (Max Minghella) enters a fictitious New York college and meets a cast of stock personalities you don't have to have majored in art to recognize. There's the shameless suck-up who's excessively familiar with each instructor's career. And the manic-depressive beatnik who can go from hysterical sobs to hysterical laughter in the wink of an eye. And the closeted fashion student who isn't aware that his preference for pastels broadcasts his carefully guarded sexual identity like a beacon. The latter is one of Jerome's two roommates, the other being a crass budding filmmaker who's a junior but still living on campus. (Expect him to get an inordinate amount of attention from America's movie critics, also old hands at painting what they see.)
There are numerous laugh-out-loud moments as Jerome goes about the time-honored undergrad pursuit of absorbing outside influences in order to find himself ' though the more that process involves his specific course of study, the colder and more distanced the movie's humor becomes. An artistic savant shows up in one of Jerome's classes, wowing the other students and their professor (a dead-on John Malkovich) with his infantile representations of the humdrum. Jerome is moved to copy the stranger's style, perhaps because no loftier example is being set by the adult graduates he gets to meet. One (a pathetic and frightening Jim Broadbent) lives nearby in a ramshackle apartment, drinking all day and casting angry aspersions on every artist from Picasso on down; another, a smug success story named Marvin Bushmiller (Adam Scott), returns to campus for a lecture and delights in viciously insulting the audience of eager beavers. Given the 'for us, by usâ?� nature of the film, there's no telling what viewers are supposed to find funnier, this character's attitude or his last name ' a probable homage to Nancy creator Ernie Bushmiller, a figure of fascination among latter-day cartoonists of Clowes' ilk. (Marvin Bushmiller's artwork, by the way, was created for the film by Devo frontman and movie-score composer Mark Mothersbaugh. Talk about strange bedfellows.)
Buscemi makes a few appearances as a local restaurateur who gives promising students their first big break, but the failure of these scenes to register more than polite chuckles is a sign that something is very wrong with the film. It completely collapses in the last act, as Clowes and Zwigoff abandon humor entirely to milk a subplot they've earlier introduced about a serial strangler who has the whole campus terrified. Not exactly side-splitting material, its clumsy incorporation into the classroom monkeyshines ' a failed stab at a John Waters-esque statement about 'outlaw artâ?� ' seals the fate of a movie that hasn't realized it's no more sophisticated than a John Cusack comedy of the '80s (albeit with a lead actor who lacks Cusack's gift for imbuing Everymen with winning eccentricity). And if you're expecting another Enid, forget it. That kind of lightning only strikes once.
(Opens Friday, May 12, at Enzian Theater; 407-629-0054)