Ranked somewhere between corrupt politicians and pompous actors, pretentious art students are an all-too-easy target for satire. Nevertheless, it can be fun to watch someone viciously riff on the smarmy affectations of art school. And for its first act, Art School Confidential effectively savages the poseurs, burnouts, hyperbolic filmmakers and failed artists-turned-professors that populate so many of our fine-art institutions. Too bad HBO's Six Feet Under beat them to most of the punch lines.
But that's not what undermines filmmaker Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Bad Santa) and cult comic book auteur Daniel Clowes' incredibly disappointing and wholly unsatisfying follow-up to the cynically snappy Ghost World. It's the film's complete lack of emotional resonance or dramatic center. A messy blend of art school satire, coming-of-age love story and serial murder mystery, Art School Confidential manages to ultimately fail in all three genres.
Suburban boy Jerome (Max Minghella) is a naive first-year student at the fictional Strathmore Academy, a Pratt-inspired school that thrives on insipid gallery shows, nonsensical critiques and self-important art student babble. Amid the angry lesbians, gay fashion students and self-absorbed beatniks, the relatively normal Jerome is the freak.
When his classically inspired work is dismissed, Jerome falls in with Bardo (Joel Moore), a slacker artist who changes majors more often than his underwear, and learns the soul-crushing truth about art school education: It's all bullshit. Worse still, nude-model Audrey (Sophie Myles) the girl of Jerome's dreams is more interested in a popular but talentless preppy dude. Oh yeah, and there's also a crazed killer murdering people around campus.
The recurring theme in Zwigoff's work is that of the social misfit who struggles to be accepted by a crass dominant culture, only to find his voice marginalized and his idealism demolished. Art School continues in this vein, but doesn't add anything new or meaningful. Jerome's quest for an artistic identity and romantic love isn't nearly as involving as the misguided yearnings of Thora Birch in Ghost World.
Further, the withering swipes at the art world aren't integrated into the cluttered, rambling narrative. Instead, the uninspired serial killer subplot takes over. Ultimately, you won't care.
Strangely, Zwigoff trades his deadpan filmmaking style for garish cinematography and production values. It's obvious he's trying to emulate the visual schemes of cheap comic books, but the distracting result just looks tacky.
The cast is filled with well-known character actors in eccentric supporting roles. John Malkovich is great as Jerome's bitter, somewhat swishy professor but it's a role he could do in his sleep. Jim Broadbent is effectively seedy as a boozy and menacing failed artist, but Anjelica Huston and Steve Buscemi seem lost in their cameo roles.
Which leaves the young stars. Myles is captivating but a little old for her part. Moore is amusingly irreverent and Minghella gives his Jerome just enough soul that we almost care whether he sells out or not. It's not easy to deliver a three-dimensional performance in a two-dimensional movie, but the promising young actor hints at where Art School Confidential might have gone with a better sense of direction.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.