Adam Scott plays Will Ferrell's successful but jerky younger brother in Step Brothers
(why two words?). I knew I'd seen this actor before playing a jerk, but I couldn't place it. Then, last night, I saw him as the annoying artist in Art School Confidential
I've written about this 2006 film in passing, but watching it again, I could see its better qualities, as well as why it failed--with the critics and the audience. (There'll probably be spoilers ahead, though I doubt anyone cares at this point.)
The movie is based on a fine comic by Daniel Clowes, but one that has no plot--it's just a nasty look at art school. So to make the movie, Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff (who'd done Crumb
, Ghost World
and Bad Santa
) had to invent one. They decided on a Candide-like story of a young, innocent art school student who's high hopes are brought down by the real world.
There is a fellow art school student who early on guides our hero through the school, essentially mouthing Clowes gags straight--aside from that, he's barely a character. But there has to be more to fill a movie, so they turn it into a love story, and then throw in a serial murderer subplot. This is where most people gave up, and they have a point. It doesn't seem to mix, either with the main plot or the general tone. Only in the final act do we see it fit in, providing both the climax and the resolution, but it still seems absurdly melodramatic. Perhaps it could have worked, but it would have to be woven in better.
But worse is the hopeless, dark tone. The story often seems little more than our boy's hopes being raised again and again, only to be crushed each time. I realize Zwigoff is using our expectations--in conventional films, the hero usually goes from one triumph to the next--against us, but it gets tiresome. Besides, going against formula can become a formula itself. And once you throw in that the vast majority of characters are liars, jerks, chiselers, etc., and that the thesis of the movie is that the whole art world is one big scam, the story becomes too cynical--there's no room to breathe.
Also working against the film is the lead, baby-faced Max Minghella. He looks ten years younger than everyone else, and his descent into a hardbitten, worldwise character is hard to buy.
But that said, there's a lot to recommend this film. As you might expect, coming from insiders, the stuff about the art world being a racket (and that's what most of the film is), while cynical, is often well-observed. The students represent various art school archetypes, all united in their pretentiousness.
And John Malkovich is especially good as the professor who desperately wants to be recognized for his art but just as desperately doesn't want anyone to know how desperate he is.
Then there's Jim Broadbent, one of the finest character actors around, as another disappointed artist who has become an alcoholic and, it turns out, a murderer. His character is well done, though the whole murder subplot is just too much.
In the end, the protagonist is mistaken for the killer, which is the best thing that could happen to him. After having all his work thrown back in his face, being thought a criminal makes him a hot artist, and everyone who shunned him wants a piece. (Very similar to The Bonfire Of The Vanities
Matt Keeslar has an interesting part as the student who doesn't fit in because he seems too normal. In the last act it's revealed he's an undercover cop. (The cops, by the way, are treated as cynically as the art people--a very dark film) Along the way, Keeslar has to turn in artwork and becomes the star of the school.
Now that's an interesting story. Perhaps if they made him the lead, the movie would have worked better.