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Laurence Fishburne has been making the rounds lately, discussing his attraction to the gruff mentor roles he plays in Akeelah and the Bee and Mission: Impossible III. He’s far from the only guy assaying such parts at the moment, of course. But not everyone shares his requirement that gurus have to be good guys. Between them, Art School Confidential and Down in the Valley have more than their fair share of mentors—and the worst of them is just murder.
Reuniting director Terry Zwigoff and scripter Daniel Clowes, Art School Confidential is partly a riff on a minor theme of their delightful Ghost World: the shallow trendiness of art teachers and students. But there’s also something of Zwigoff’s one-note Bad Santa in the film, in both the presence of brazenly offensive macho slobs and the reliance on a crime-genre plot. This conceptual cousin to The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe’s lament that contemporary art is all concept and no craft, turns out to be a serial-killer flick.
This time, Clowes’ alter ego is naive suburban teenager Jerome Platz (Max Minghella, son of director Anthony and the older brother in Bee Season). After a quick sketch of Jerome’s bullied childhood, the movie dispatches him to Strathmore Academy, an institution whose debris-strewn campus suggests a high school in a particularly rough ’70s slum. Jerome’s new roommates are fat Tarantino wannabe Vince (Ethan Suplee), a junior, and Matthew (Nick Swardson), a freshman fashion major who pointlessly insists he’s not gay. It’s Vince who informs the newcomers that the campus is being stalked by “the Strathmore Strangler,” which leads to a funny bit about a student who tried to exploit the situation by creating a pro-murder conceptual word-art piece. At this point, Art School Confidential has already topped Ghost World’s tampon-in-a-teacup gag.
But then the plot kicks in. In a development that’s pure generic-teen-comedy, Jerome falls hard for Audrey (Sophia Myles), a pretty life model and Strathmore’s free-ranging muse. He tries to impress her with his draftsmanship, which is clearly superior to that of anyone else in the drawing class run by supercilious failed abstractionist “Sandy” Sandiford (John Malkovich). Audrey is friendly to Jerome, but she—and everyone in the class—becomes fascinated by mysterious new student Jonah (Matt Keeslar), whose paintings are untainted by skill or knowledge. In desperation, Jerome begins frequenting the trashed apartment of bitter, alcoholic Strathmore alum Jimmy (Jim Broadbent). Ultimately, he decides that he has to make his art edgier, which leads back to the serial-killer plot—and, of course, to Vince, who’s using his grandpa’s cash to make a wretched movie about the strangler, a joke that would be funnier if Zwigoff’s cinematic style weren’t almost as slapdash as the upperclassman’s.
There’s more art-world burlesque, including a Jeff Koons–like celeb who returns to Strathmore to tell everyone that he’s rich (and they stink), a gallery/cafe hangout run by a haughty hustler (Steve Buscemi), and numerous references to the biggest star among the school’s recent grads, Marvin Bushmiller (defiantly named for the great artist who created Nancy & Sluggo). Clowes’ script depicts Strathmore as a horror show of cant, hypocrisy, and careerism—even the students in a freshman drawing class supposedly expect to line up their first gallery shows before Thanksgiving break. Most of this is as sour as it is implausible, and Jerome is too flat to be a countervailing force. As a protagonist, he’s barely more than a stick figure.
It’s unclear exactly where this project went off course, but perhaps the first wrong turn was locating it in a city identified as New York. Aside from one subway scene, the film doesn’t look as if it’s set anywhere in particular, and it certainly lacks the rootedness of Ghost World’s vision of a pleasantly outdated Los Angeles. In fact, Art School Confidential eliminates nearly everything that was appealing about Ghost World, including sympathetic characters, cohesive visual style, and, not least, generosity of spirit. Whereas the earlier movie’s protagonist took an eccentric but well-meaning rare-blues collector as her guide to adulthood, Jerome finds only a corroded painter who drunkenly suggests that all mankind should be destroyed.
Although Clowes had nothing to do with Bad Santa, the two films share a tiresome abrasiveness, notably in their treatment of women. Vince is the prime offender, but he’s not the only character who refers to female students by such terms as “gash,” “skank,” and “ho.” (It’s almost a relief when Jimmy changes things up by explaining that art-world success is all about “sucking cock.”) Perhaps Clowes’ resentment is fueled as much by romantic disappointment as artistic rejection. But whatever the source of Art School Confidential’s bile, this portrait of the young man as an artist could use less concept and more craft.
Writer-director David Jacobson’s Down in the Valley is also set in a denatured location, but that’s the whole point: Its valley is the San Fernando, a vast hollow of suburban sprawl in which scattered pockets of rural life persevere.
The ranches and horse farms amid the tract housing provide jobs for the sporadic cowboy, which is what Harlan Carruthers (Edward Norton) professes to be—even if he is working at a gas station when he first meets his teenage muse, Tobe (short for October). She impulsively invites Harlan to the beach, a trip that culminates in hasty sex in the house Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) shares with easily frightened little brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) and their hot-tempered stepdad, Wade (David Morse), a prison guard with a sizable gun collection.
Harlan plays the part of a courtly, old-fashioned cowpoke who’s perplexed by the modern world, although his gentlemanly code apparently doesn’t preclude screwing a high school student. (Tobe’s age isn’t revealed, but Wade calls her “a minor.”) If Harlan poses as Jimmy Stewart in public, back in the cheap motel where he lives, he’s a cross between John Wayne and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. Facing down desperadoes in the mirror, he practices his fast draw; when he gets really excited, he actually pulls the trigger. Jacobson portrays Tobe’s precocious sexuality as a hazard to public order, but her new beau’s gun-slinging just might be more dangerous.
Harlan claims to be from South Dakota, and he insists he’s friends with the grizzled local rancher (Bruce Dern) from whom he occasionally “borrows” a horse. Although the fissures in his white-hatted persona soon become obvious, Harlan feels confident giving Tobe such ironic advice as “talk with your true voice.” One day when he can’t find his new girlfriend, the suburban cowboy decides to coach Lonnie in manliness, taking him out to plug cans and bottles. When things finally go wrong and Harlan must flee, it’s Lonnie who goes along for the fateful ride.
Norton, who’s one of Down in the Valley’s producers, has a taste for dark, earnest films, and Jacobson’s certainly fits that description. (Inevitably, the movie was developed with the help of the Sundance Institute, long a supporter of such fare, especially when it’s set in the American West.) Elegantly shot by Crónicas cinematographer Enrique Chediak, the film is a looker. But it takes itself altogether too seriously, even when dealing in giggle-eliciting clichés. Jacobson is capable of amusing juxtapositions, notably in a scene in which Harlan attempts to take sanctuary in an Orthodox synagogue. But the score—which alternates folky ballads, country standards, and Mazzy Star with flailing electric guitar—is standard-issue independent-cinema stuff. And many of the visual flourishes aren’t even fresh enough to be indie: When Tobe leaves her house in a funk, the skies immediately open on her.
Just about a month ago, Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking was ridden out of town for daring to imagine that the Western myth still has pertinence and that cowboy movies are still being made. Whereas Wenders began his film on a Western’s set, Jacobson ends his on one, which is an even more dubious idea. The director contrasts the banal present with an idealized past, but he seems overly enraptured by the latter. In linking Hollywood fable-spinning to self-delusion, Don’t Come Knocking inadvertently anticipated Down in the Valley, a movie that takes its protagonist’s self-mythologizing too much to heart.CP