Remember the art class scenes in Ghost World with Illeana Douglas as the hippie teacher who couldn’t appreciate Enid’s drawings but simply adored the old tampon in a teacup trick? “Art School Confidential” is basically a feature-length version of that, at least at first.
We meet Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), a high school outcast who dreams of becoming an artist and finally getting respect. When he’s accepted into the prestigious Strathmore Institute though, he discovers that most of his classmates are losers, druggies, kiss-asses, angry lesbians (“We used to bump cunts together.”), pretentious blowhards and opportunists. He also realizes that the future is bleak for would-be artists: either you make it and become an over-hyped asshole (Adam Scott) or you don’t and turn into a bitter failure who drinks himself to death (Jim Broadbent) – or teaches (John Malkovich).
Terry Zwigoff and comic book writer Daniel Clowes’ second collaboration displays the same oddball sense of humor and satirical edge as their Ghost World, with an affectionate/mocking attention to detail that extends into countless memorable little touches and peripheral characters, like Jerome’s roommates, an effeminate fashion major (Nick Swardson) who thinks he might be gay (shocking!) and a foul mouthed pseudo-filmmaker (Ethan Suplee, apparently riffing on his “Mallrats” director Kevin Smith), or the pompous owner of the nearby gallery / coffee-shop (Steve Buscemi).
“Art School Confidential” lacks a protagonist as iconic and compelling as Enid Coleslaw, but the Jerome character touches on something not uninteresting in its own way: the exquisite pain of unrequited love. You see, young Mr. Platz is still a virgin, having always been ignored by girls in high school and finding that “boning art skanks” doesn’t prove any easier. In any case, he doesn’t want just any woman: he’s desperately enamored of Audrey (Sophia Myles), one of the school’s nude models who intensely inspires him – artistically and otherwise. Alas, she seems more attracted to Jonah (Matt Keeslar), a dumb jock whose naive paintings of sports cars and tanks are all the sensation in the school right now.
There’s also a subplot about a serial killer who’s been strangling people around campus, which seems like an afterthought at first but reveals to be a deceptively clever catalyst for the rest of the story. The unexpected resolution is incredibly cynical but not that far from reality, and it elevates the whole movie into a fuller critique of the art world.