Tuesday, May 09, 2006

SLOW TIMES AT PRATT INSTITUTE. Terry Zwigoff did very well with Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, but has a rockier time of it with Clowes' Art School Confidential. The new movie devotes a lot of time to fleshing out a thinly-disguised Pratt Institute. The makers have a strong feel for, and opinions about, the setting, and must have found it great fun to delineate some of the types such places attract. I was encouraged by the arrival scene – there’s the barefoot neo-hippie chick! There’s the beatnik! There’s our hero, Jerome the suburban Picasso manque! – and I would have been satisfied if they just set these stereotypes bouncing off one another with some verve.

Alas, immediately the campus slacker is enlisted to describe more stereotypes, and for the most part the ‘types never get a more vivid reading. That still might have worked. There are worse cinematic failings than glibness. When ASC is fast, it’s fun. Jerome’s failed romantic encounters, and some of the desperate follies of the would-be art stars, give some easy laughs. But there’s not enough energy here to keep the balloon aloft for long.

It may be that Zwigoff and Clowes are too in love with their material. People familiar with this scene – and I have some small knowledge of it -- can sit around in a bar swapping funny horror stories about it for hours, but it’s not enough to hang a movie on unless you can convey some of the insane momentum of dream-maddened people completely devoted to their ego trips and illusions.

Zwigoff moves too slowly for that. He’s not the most high-octane sort of director anyway, but he might also have been weighted down by the grander theme of the film, which has to do with the toxic residue of failed ambition. A few scenes are fully devoted to this, and though they’re even slower than the rest of the movie, they’re much more interesting. Jerome’s visit to Professor Sandiford’s home, with a clenched wife, a scotched deal, and a pathetic monologue ending with a sexual advance, has a nice dank smell of failure about it. Better still are the scenes with Jim Broadbent as the appallingly maudit Baconian lush who becomes Jerome’s confidant, and who sets in motion Jerome’s downfall, or triumph, depending on how you look at it.

They’re good scenes, and another, better movie might have been built out of them. Or the filmmakers could have gone the other way and made American Pie: Art Camp. As it is, we have a failed campus comedy with a few stretches of splendid desolation.

UPDATE. Some morons, of course, think the movie is about politics. But I guess that type never thumps a melon without observing that conservatism made it ripe, or liberalism made it green.

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