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Max Minghella as Jerome
Sophia Myles as Audrey
Matt Keeslar as Jonah
John Malkovich as Professor Sandiford
Jim Broadbent as Jimmy
Anjelica Huston as Sophie
Joel Moore as Bardo
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
This irreverent look at the world of art schools offers some solid laughs at first, but then gets bogged down in a rather dreary crime drama story that isn't nearly as much fun.
Jerome (Max Minghella) has dreamed his whole life of being a great artist. When he moves to New York to attend the Strathmore Institute, he learns that art isn't all it's cracked up to be. When Jerome's not obsessing over beautiful nude model Audrey (Sophia Myles), his dreams are being shattered by disrespectful classmates, an unsupportive teacher (John Malkovich), and a bitter alcoholic has-been (Jim Broadbent). On top of that, a murderous strangler has been terrorizing the campus and Jerome is the prime suspect.
In 2001, comic book creator Daniel Clowes teamed with director Terry Zwygoff to bring Clowes' serialized comic story, "Ghost World," to life; they got an Oscar nomination for their efforts. Five years later, they've reunited to tell a darkly humorous story about the world of art students, an environment Clowes might know far too well, considering the film's bitter edge that could only come from someone who has experienced it firsthand.
Because of this, "Art School Confidential" offers a lot of irreverent laughs, mostly in the first half hour, as the introverted Jerome tries to feel his way around Strathmore School for the Arts, learning the ropes from Bardo, who has been in and out of the school for years. To give Jerome a clearer perspective on how the art world works, Bardo introduces him to alcoholic art has-been Jimmy, played by an almost unrecognizable Jim Broadbent. He's more than happy to share his bitter philosophies with Jerome, who falls into despair the more he realizes that Jimmy is right.
Those familiar with Clowes and Zwygoff's previous work won't be surprised by the bizarre characters that populate this dark comedy, and they've found some great fodder for humor in the world of art schools. When the students critique each other's work, its comes across as so ludicrous and pretentious that you have to love it when Jerome starts saying out loud exactly what we're thinking.
With such a great set-up, it's almost a shame that there has to be a story to go along with their mocking of art school pretensions. To satirize the movie "High School Confidential," from which Clowes got its title, there's a running storyline about a strangler plaguing the campus and an undercover cop disguised as an art student trying to stop the murderous rampage. Of course, that officer is a well-dressed, handsome guy, completely out of place at Strathmore, who ends up dating Jerome's dream girl Audrey. As Jerome gets deeper and deeper into a funk about his art not getting the respect he thinks it deserves, he becomes the top suspect for the murders.
Unfortunately, that rather trite crime story isn't as interesting or entertaining as the clever gags that kicked off the movie, nor is it as inventive or subversive as we've come to expect from Clowes and Zwigoff. It's also not really enough to sustain a comedy without dragging it down. On top of that, the movie often deteriorates into Kevin Smith territory with lots of swearing and nudity to try to get laughs, the worst case of this being the film student played by Smith veteran Ethan Suplee, who seems to be channeling Smith in most of his scenes. Obviously, Zwigoff's attempt to mix his edgier "Bad Santa" humor with Clowes' more passive humor doesn't always work.
Max Minghella is a natural at pulling off the shy naiveté needed to turn Jerome into the audience's touchstone for the Strathmore experience, but he isn't so convincing as a drunken bad boy. Sophia Myles, looking like a young Rachel Weisz, isn't that much better as his love interest. While Jim Broadbent is amusing as the psychotic former art teacher, John Malkovich isn't stretching much as Jerome's presumably gay mentor, and Anjelica Huston is pretty much wasted, appearing in only two superfluous scenes. The film's biggest flaw is that it quickly discards and forgets Joel Moore's Bardo, who offers the most consistent laughs in the first half of the movie; he only appears once in the last hour, almost as a throwaway. "Ghost World" fans might enjoy the cameo by the always-great Steve Buscemi, but when it comes down to it, there are just too many characters and subplots to keep track of.
The Bottom Line:
The strange characters and clever visual gags introduced in the latest Clowes/Zwigoff joint are worth a few hearty laughs, but anyone expecting the subtle character-driven humor of "Ghost World" may be disappointed when the raunchy dark comedy turns instead into a rather predictable crime drama.