Art school seems like an ideal new hangout for director Terry Zwigoff. After all, he made himself at home in the cult-comic world of “Crumb,” the surreal pop-culture land of “Ghost World” and the holiday nether-zone of “Bad Santa.”
Considering Zwigoff’s gift for black comedy and off-kilter visuals, “Art School Confidential” could have been another strangely engaging romp into the stew of American culture. The movie proves a lackluster followup, though, presenting a half-baked mixture of romance, campus comedy, media satire and film-noir mystery that never coalesces.
Zwigoff again teams with Daniel Clowes, whose underground comic series “Ghost World” was the basis for the director’s terrific 2001 film starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson.
This time, Clowes adapts his comic short story “Art School Confidential,” but his screenplay mainly is weird for the sake of weirdness and delivers shallow commentary on artistic ambition and undeserved celebrity.
The film’s comic elements are only sporadically funny, the drama is thin, the suspense is faint, the pace is poky. John Malkovich, a producer on the film, livens up some of his scenes as a pompous though insecure art professor, and Jim Broadbent steals his few moments on screen as a failed artist drowning himself blissfully in booze and squalor.
Like “Ghost World,” “Art School Confidential” centers on teens making their fitful way into an adult realm that’s a mystery to them.
Max Minghella, who co-starred in “Bee Season” and is the son of director Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient”), plays Jerome Platz, a misfit artist thrilled to put high school behind him and get serious as an art-school freshman at Strathmore Institute.
A Picasso fanatic, Jerome has more embryonic talent than most of his pretentious new college classmates, yet what he wants most is not so much to develop his craft and become the best artist he can be as to be famous and score with women.
To that end, Jerome meanders through his first semester, scoffing at the phonies surrounding him while trying to maneuver the strange politics of art school and position himself for quick success and renown.
He falls for a beautiful model (Sophia Myles) who poses nude in the classroom of professor Sandiford (Malkovich), a teacher confined to the classroom only because he’s yet to find success himself with his own miserly, repetitively geometric canvases.
In a brief role, Anjelica Huston pops up as an art-history professor who lectures on the endurance of true art, her warmth, sincerity and seeming lack of desperate ambition making her the film’s most sympathetic figure.
Broadbent is hilarious as a drunken painter railing against an art world that elevates mediocrity while neglecting his legitimate talent, his character’s actions and fate becoming intertwined with Jerome’s destiny.
Anyone who’s rolled their eyes through a pedantic, go-for-the-jugular classroom critique of fellow students’ creative efforts will appreciate some of the interplay as know-nothing wannabes have a go at one another’s work in “Art School Confidential.”
It gradually grows trite and repetitive, though, as does the film’s take on lasting art vs. the kitsch of the moment.