Portrait of a con artist

'Art School Confidential,' a gloomy satire of the art scene, lacks profundity.

Nobody will ever accuse director Terry Zwigoff of being sunny. From his great documentary "Crumb," about gonzo comic artist R. Crumb, to "Ghost World," which he adapted from a comics story by Daniel Clowes, to the deliciously profane "Bad Santa," Zwigoff has specialized in spreading bad cheer.

His new film, "Art School Confidential," which is also adapted from a Clowes comic, is his biggest depresso opus yet. Unlike those earlier films, this isn't a feel-bad movie that makes you feel good in a misery-loves-company kind of way. "Art School Confidential" mostly just makes you feel bad - period. It puts you in a foul mood and leaves you there.

Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), newly arrived in an East Coast arts college, wants to be the next Picasso. His classmates are a funky mix of neo-Beats and deadbeats, and his professor, played by John Malkovich in full creep, is interested in Jerome for more than his drafting technique. Jerome, however, is starry-eyed over the class's nude model, Audrey (Sophia Myles), who is touched by this puppy-dog Picasso without ever quite warming to him.

Complicating matters is a serial strangler on the loose in town, prompting a few not entirely tongue-in-cheek college-dorm-style bull sessions about whether a murderer can also be an artist, or whether murder can be a form of art. The real question, it seems to me, is this: Is Jerome an artist? Because if he isn't then all we are really watching is a movie about a con artist, and a rather low-level one at that.

Jerome's paintings and drawings look less than stellar to me, although Zwigoff may well have intended this to be otherwise. It's one thing to recognize that, historically, great artists have not always been great human beings (case in point: Jerome's hero, Picasso). But why should we feel much sympathy for Jerome? His adolescent brand of nihilism is all attitude. (At least R. Crumb is some kind of genius.) Zwigoff mistakes style for artistry - a common mistake in this era when who we pretend to be is often more authenticating than who we really are.

What buys off some of this attitudinizing is the fact that, in the art scene especially, genius and charlatanism are continually being mistaken for each other. Zwigoff captures quite well the backstab aspects of this world, its rampant phoney baloneyness. But his funk doesn't allow him to capture something far more enticing: the power of true artistry. In this world of hustlers and poseurs, we never get a glimpse of the real thing. Grade: B-

Rated R for languageincluding sexual references, nudity and a scene of violence.

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