Directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb) and co-written by Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes from the latter's comic, 2001's Ghost World was one of the decade's great films, simultaneously ratifying and critiquing the alienation of its cultural-outsider protagonists en route to saying more about modern American life than any recent film I can think of.
The new Art School Confidential is so disappointing because it has the exact same pedigree -- it's almost a Ghost World spin-off in that it's built around a sub-theme of that film -- yet feels sour and limited where Ghost World was an unexpectedly expansive revelation.
Zwigoff made the Billy Bob Thornton vehicle Bad Santa in between these paired Clowes projects, and that film's nasty, dyspeptic tone informs Art School Confidential as much as Ghost World does. In Bad Santa, the bile worked. (Unless you're someone who thinks a drunken department-store Santa cursing out little kids somehow stops being funny.) But Art School Confidential's black heart eats away at the film, especially in conjunction with the draggy, awkward exposition, subpar acting, and too-obvious jokes. (At times, it feels like a bad Kevin Smith movie minus redeeming geniality.)
Max Minghella is Jerome Platz, a suburban naïf with a gift for drawing and painting who heads to an NYC art school in hopes of becoming the next Picasso. Instead he finds desperate instructors (including John Malkovich as a pathetic predator who has, after 25 years, perfected his style: painting triangles) and pretentious students who praise ridiculous conceptual pieces over Jerome's own finely crafted work. When Jerome meets a bitter, hermetic alum, Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), the old failure scoffs at the young student's banal ambition: "Are you a 'great artist' when it comes to fellatio?"
Zwigoff and Clowes put two plot lines, the familiar school-based drama -- will Jerome win the big prize and, thus, get the girl? -- and serial-killer-on-the-loose mystery, on a collision course, along the way scoring plenty of cheap but effective jokes at the expense of various art-world stereotypes.
The primary message here isn't so much anti-art as it is a polemic against arts institutions that Clowes and Zwigoff seem to feel are more a hindrance than a help. That's fine, but you get the sense that Ghost World said all Zwigoff and Clowes really needed to say about the art world, and though that film's hysterical tampon-in-a-teacup digs at conceptual-art pretension felt spot-on, in retrospect the art-class satire feels like Ghost World's least interesting theme, the one area where the film's high-wire blend of acidity and empathy loses balance.
By contrast, Art School Confidential lacks the difficult mix of confidence and self-awareness that made Ghost World so bravura. It's all bile and less a satire than a tantrum.