Certified loser and mediocre artist Jerome (Max Minghella) enters art school with hopes of success (both on canvas and between the sheets), but quickly discovers that art school is a crock, his fellow students are all jerks, and that really, despite its great rep, art just sucks.
Unfortunately, so does Art School Confidential, the second collaboration between director Terry Zwigoff and comic-artist Daniel Clowes, who expanded the screenplay from his early '90s four-page comic of the same name. In 2001, Zwigoff adapted Clowes' graphic novel Ghost World into a thoughtful, moody piece about late adolescence and its characters' search for identity from beneath a cloak of irony.
Unrelenting bitterness, not irony, is what Art School is steeped in ... and it doesn't make for a very enjoyable film. Satire and criticism can be painful, but delivered properly they should still entertain: This is a dour crab-fest, with a thin, careless plot populated by unlikable characters.
Full disclosure: I logged a year or so as an art-school poseur, and though now fully recovered, I still treasure that time as a source of great anecdotes. (Once, in a sculpture session, my entire class moved in slow motion across campus for three hours.) Thus, I was flabbergasted at how a couple of talented and observant fellas like Zwigoff and Clowes could make so little satiric hay out of such a rich source of material.
For laughs, we're offered quick cutaways of art-school stereotypes ... the neurotic girl, the tragically gay guy, the suck-up ... that are as undeveloped as any SNL gag. If only these gag shots were the least bit clever or a wee bit revelatory. Profanity serves as an easy hip-dialogue cheat, and the script is particularly harsh on women (bitches, pussy, gash, skanks, and so on).
Rather than flesh out a full cast with potentially interesting intersections and discoveries, we mostly get Jerome as he bobbles along, becoming disenchanted and moody. His filmmaker roommate (Ethan Suplee) is a bore; his teacher (John Malkovich), a preening nobody. He befriends the Bitterest Artist on Earth (Jim Broadbent), a bath-robed drunk, and moons for a pretty artist model (Sophia Myles), the only character inexplicably not angry or bitter.
Bubbling in the background is a subplot about a serial strangler. Apparently, every cool school has one ... that's how nonchalantly it's treated. Eventually the murder plot intersects with the art-school whine-fest. Though this merger spawned slightly sharper satire, by then I was too weary to care.
Even more disappointing, the film can't even make any cogent statements about slightly deeper but still easy grabs such as the essence of art (real, a gimmick or a cover for bad behavior?); art vs. commerce; or by what authority is art "good." The "Confidential" of the title is a play on the rip-the-lid-off rags of yore, but when Zwigoff and Clowes pull back this veil, there's little to be scandalized or even informed about. So art school is filled with poseurs and the whole enterprise is phony ... that must have been breaking news a week after some caveman opened the very first art school.