The story follows Jerome (Max Minghella), a soul we are supposed to imagine is destined for artisticness primarily because of the number of bullyings he's had to endure all his life beatings from people less inclined to paint his portrait than to pound it to a pulp. College life is no haven, he finds, with all the dour, tattooed, pierced kids in his art classes trying either to out-sensitive or to out-express him. All the Jeromes of the world, real and posed, have come here to turn angst and ennui into the glory of a solo show, and the competition slowly gets the best of him.
Besides securing his place at the top of his class and getting that all-important top local gallery to notice him (something that for some reason is within reach in less than a semester), Jerome's other collegiate pursuit is Audrey (Sophia Myles), a cushy blonde who strips for Jerome's drawing class. She also happens to be the daughter of a famous artist and also happens to have just broken up with last semester's solo show winner, a testy lesbian. Audrey at first seems to fall for Jerome, but then goes ape for the class hunk (Matt Keeslar), a square who also steals away the interest of Jerome's favorite teacher (John Malkovich) and the rest of his increasingly antagonistic classmates. Jerome can't win: Not only does his earnest, illustrative portraiture clash with the abstract work of the other students, but also, ironically enough, his unique status as resident naysayer is outshined by, of all people, a preppy the class' one true weirdo.
Reading just the basic plot, what's been played up in promotional materials, "Art School Confidential" seems like a nasty poke at the self-inflated, overintellectualized and cloistered institutions that have helped heft art ever away from common experience into impenetrable towers of theory and snobby gallery openings. This is easily where the movie could have gone, except that for some inexplicable reason, it didn't.
"Art School Confidential" is a clumsy and embarrassingly broad piece of work, stocked with enough potted characters to fill a few Adam Sandler movies. Of course, there's no law against making a comedy, except if by comedy you mean it has to be funny. "Art School Confidential" isn't, unless you think the height of hilarity is fat people made to look oafish, gays silly, lesbians sinister, college profs curmudgeonly and students brittle and pretentious. The only thing I left out were the wisecracking sidekick and the star-crossed love interest. Zwigoff and Clowes didn't forget them either.
Neither did they leave out a campus serial killer (likeably played by Jim Broadbent), a character meant to behave like the mysterious death box in Alex Cox's infinitely better (and more watchable) satire "Repo Man." This kind of kooky device is intended to throw an otherwise serious subject off-kilter, to simultaneously charm and panic the audience while the movie itself barely recognizes its existence. The device shows that Zwigoff and Clowes realize what they have, but they forgot to balance it with what's physical and real about Jerome's experience.
During a rehearsal scene for the preposterous student film that Jerome's comic, overweight roommate is making about a campus serial killer, the lead actress suddenly interrupts his gangster wannabe dialogue. "Why do you want to regurgitate this Hollywood crap for the zillionth time?" she asks, and for a second, we might think that Zwigoff is taking a subtle stab at his own movie. It's safe to say, though, he isn't. "Art School Confidential" is too earnest about being hip, cutting and topical to be a subversive satire. This is a case of two reasonably talented moviemakers doing something they didn't need to, which is tell jokes about art school. Anyone who's ever been to a student exhibit knows this. The work speaks for itself. (R) 102 min. ** S