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Downbeat satirical comedy set in and around the world of pretentious art school hipsters. John Malkovich and Jim Broadbent are among the stars, Terry Zwigoff directs
Artistic misfit Jerome Platz (Minghella) heads to the one place he believes he'll fit in: art school. He's disillusioned from the off. His fellow students are pretentious idiots, he doesn't spend the entire time sleeping with beautiful women and, oh yes, there's a murderer on campus.
When director Terry Zwigoff and comic-book writer and artist Daniel Clowes last collaborated on a movie, the result was the quietly wonderful Ghost World. Basically a movie-length version of that film's art class subplot, Art School Confidential exhibits a similar mix of dark humour, quirkiness and contempt for societal norms and artistic pretentiousness. If it doesn't quite achieve the greatness of Ghost World, it's not due to lack of effort; there's a lot of fantastic stuff here, particularly during the first half.
It fully realises the comic potential of its art school setting, gleefully parading its cast of preening, self-involved and - as far as we can tell - talentless wannabes. "I want to be the greatest artist of the twentieth century," announces one, while another dismisses Jerome's old-fashioned non-conceptual painting as "totally September 10th".
King amongst these pseuds is Professor Sandiford, another masterful creation from John Malkovich. Though an odious and opinionated egomaniac, he's somehow likeable, not least because he's actually a colossal failure who's never managed to leave the school. Another warning from history for the students is Jimmy, a drunk who lives in penury, as he has done ever since he dropped out of the school three decades before. Played by Jim Broadbent, he's simultaneously hilarious, frightening and tragic. It is he who lays out the likely career path of a student who refuses to compromise: "He'll bone his way through art school, postponing suicide in the slim hope that you'll see a plague of pestilence visited upon your hated species."
Though worth seeing for its characters and acerbic dialogue, Art School Confidential falls down when it comes to story. Borrowing elements from 1958 kitsch classic High School Confidential, it has an undercover cop posing as an art student so he can uncover the identity of the campus killer. And then - satire alert - his feeble attempts at art are hailed as genius.
While we barely scratch the surface of some of the wonderful characters - nothing much happens with Malkovich for instance - it's a shame that the film's main impetus turns out to be focused on such a pedestrian and predictable plot. A final twist involving a dropped cigarette and stolen artwork is particularly jarring.
Though well worth seeing, especially for fans of Ghost World, Art School can't keep up the energy and wit that makes its opening hour such a riot.
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