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The art of being yourself


When the gifted Jerome (Max Minghella, Bee Season) finally arrives at Strathmore, he assumes the Cro-Magnon bullying and unfair social strata of high school to be a thing of the past, the next four years chockablock with creative expression, respect, and open-minded (ahem) women. As Jerome will learn in the course of Art School Confidential, director Terry Zwigoff's follow-up to 2003's Bad Santa, adult life is as unjust as kid life --- though the swirlies become verbal once you reach a certain height --- and talent is less necessary than luck.

Art School Confidential is Zwigoff's second screen adaptation of a Daniel Clowes graphic narrative, the first being 2001's slightly overpraisedGhost World. The films share the same deadpan humor and cynical outlook, but Art School Confidential lacks Ghost World's admittedly generous heart. And it has nothing in common with Bad Santa, though the misleading trailers invoke that title in a seeming effort to make the potential audience think this is a raunchy comedy. It ain't, but Art School Confidential does feature its share of ridiculous sight gags and filthy asides as it takes potshots at that easiest of targets, the self-important artiste.

With jaded sidekick Bardo (Joel David Moore, Dodgeball) cataloging all the iniquity, Jerome's journey from optimist to nihilist begins when the technically deficient Jonah (Matt Keeslar, from Gregg Araki's Splendor) becomes the class darling ("It's as if he's unlearned everything!" another student marvels). To add insult to injury, Jonah has also caught the eye of Jerome's muse (a boring Sophia Myles, Tristan and Isolde). Oh, and there's a serial killer thinning out Swarthmore's ranks. I only mention this plot point because it helps Jerome with the last leg of his voyage, from bleak nihilist to good old-fashioned opportunist.

Resembling what the Jolie-Pitt spawn might eventually look like, the lovely Minghella isn't a terribly strong screen presence, though that might work here as he's playing an impressionable young man who desperately wants to be something more (or at least something else). The strong supporting cast includes John Malkovich as a teacher distracted by his own dreams of art stardom, the essential Jim Broadbent as a vile Swarthmore alum who gave up those fantasies a long time ago, and Steve Buscemi in a cameo as an obnoxious art aficionado whose anointing can jump-start the career of a young artist.

The message of Art School Confidential seems to be that people are fickle and pretentious, though this is hardly news. So perhaps the point is that you need to trust your instincts and not rely upon others to tell you whether you like something. The only truly relevant opinion is your own.

Oh, hell. I think I just put myself out of a job.

In writer-director Eddy Terstall's bittersweet Dutch treat Simon, Simon (CeesGeel) and Camiel (Marcel Hensema) meet cutely, albeit painfully, when Simon mows Camiel down with his car. Simon is one of those magnetic guys around whom everyone orbits, and somehow the introverted, gay Camiel gets sucked into that trajectory, despite having next to nothing in common with the gregarious, womanizing Simon.

But that's all told in flashback. When modern-day Simon runs into Camiel again, it's after a massive rift between the one-time pals has entered its second decade. Their egos become insignificant, however, once Camiel learns about Simon's brain tumor, and the dynamic between Simon and his friend shifts in a fascinating way. Though Simon's manic energy now has a different focus, he hasn't lost any of his abrasive charm, and Camiel returns to the fold once and for all.

Simon's eclectic ensemble cast does a beautiful job of illustrating Simon's effect on them, both individually and collectively. With Camiel, Simon clearly instilled in him the confidence and strength he had been lacking, and now those qualities will be necessary to support the slowly deteriorating Simon in the face of some difficult decisions, including to whom he should entrust his children.

About midway through Simon I wrote myself an eloquent note: "Where going?" Even though we know within the first couple of minutes about Simon's cancer, the film refuses to traffic in sap, and without the requisite Motown singalong, it's easy to forget that someone on screen is terminal. The film addresses weightier topics like same-sex marriage and assisted suicide, but Simon is really just about the meaning of friendship. And it's certainly refreshing to watch a film with a central gay character that isn't the one who's doing the farm shopping.

Art School Confidential (R), directed by Terry Zwigoff, opens Friday, May 12, at Henrietta 18, Little Theatres and Pittsford Cinema | Simon (NR), directed by Eddy Terstall, shows Friday, May 12, at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre, 8 p.m.