At this point in the brief career of Max Minghella, son of director Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), I am reminded of former magazine cover girl and faux actress Kelly LeBrock's famous quote, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." The scripted line was pure whine and cheese back in the day -- and quite a hoot too -- but now, each time I lay eyes on Minghella's handsome boy-geek face with those dark, shyly sensitive eyes and that head full of coal-black locks, I hear him begging for forgiveness.
It's not his fault, though, at least not the genetic factor. And I suppose he should be excused for the decisions of casting directors who have capitalized on his good looks by featuring him as the offspring of the likes of Richard Gere and Juliet Binoche in Bee Season and George Clooney in Syriana.
Gere and Binoche couldn't give birth to anything less than an angel, and, given the spiritual nature of Bee Season's narrative, audiences could certainly handle that skip of faith while gazing at Minghella. And while the wife of Clooney's character is never granted screen time in Syriana, the boy looks like he could have sprung fully formed from Clooney's head like something out of Greek mythology.
It's stunt casting that has made him little more than a delicate detail in the set design of these films.
His first real moment to shine comes in Art School Confidential, the latest collaboration between director Terry Zwigoff and comic book writer-turned-scripter Daniel Clowes. Yet, as Jerome, the young geek unsure of how to apply his artistic potential, Minghella once again finds himself saddled with the burden of his lineage, albeit in a more figurative sense this time.
The story for the filmed version of Confidential is based on a strip Clowes wrote that first appeared in Eightball, later collected in Twentieth Century Eightball, but the narrative has been retooled and expanded, giving new life to this naive dreamer.
Zwigoff and Clowes seemingly craft films in much the same way that artists and writers create comic books and graphic novels. Their marriage began auspiciously with the Academy Award-nominated Ghost World (2002 Best Adapted Screenplay) and is unique due to the perceived intimacy of their independently realized adaptations of Clowes' quirky characters.
From the start, Jerome's romantic streak is expressed in typical teenage fashion as a desire to get laid by any means necessary. Art is simply his tool, but along the way the realities of life blunt his instrument. He uses it to earn temporary favor with bullies and then to enter the Strathmore Institute, a prestigious art school teeming with overdrawn types from queening fashion designers-in-training to wannabe filmmaking hustlers eager to graduate to the gossip magazines and entertainment network shows.
With preening faculty members like Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich), who uses his classes as administrative time to book and finalize plans for exhibitions, and bitter old alums like Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), who lives in a space that resembles a bombed-out war-zone bunker, Jerome's innocent promise doesn't stand a chance. Not even when he finally meets Audrey (Sophia Myles), a sketch class model who becomes his muse and incites a rivalry with a clearly less talented classmate (Matt Keeslar).
The presence of a serial killer preying upon this jaded art-school world adds to the lethal dose of reality Clowes and Zwigoff layer onto their cynical collage, but the injection feels like a much-needed shot of adrenaline because the film lacks a captivating center.
Minghella cuts a fine figure, but there is no beauty in his performance. More specifically, there is no edge, abrasiveness or passion.
What Confidential lacks is the kind of ugliness that Billy Bob Thornton slathered on every frame of Zwigoff's Bad Santa. As Jerome slides further along toward the outer limits where creation leads to madness, his dark, glassy eyes and smooth features offer nothing, not even the sense of cunning calculation necessary to commit to the concluding twist.
Steve Buscemi, as a pompous gallery owner who claims credit for breaking the latest "talents" to emerge from Strathmore, and Ethan Suplee, as Jerome's outrageously bad filmmaking roommate, provide quick, bold strokes that serve to distract from the soft centerpiece, which is the non-relationship between Minghella and Myles, another beauty of questionable soul last seen in Tristan + Isolde.
Hating beauty, especially in the service of art and not some notion of accommodating popular culture, is not the point here. Wasting it is what mars Art School Confidential. Minghella doesn't render a sharply drawn performance, one capable of allowing him to emerge from the shadows, which also relegates this Zwigoff/Clowes piece to the fringes. Grade: C-