For those of us who adore Clowes' and Zwigoff's work, together and separately, news of their collaboration seemed reason for celebration. Their adaptation of Clowes' graphic novel Ghost World five years ago was smart, sly and heartfelt it dripped with affection for two outcast girls wrestling with the emotions, angst, stirrings and pressures that build as bodies bloom and minds expand. Zwigoff needed little prompting: Clowes' original work had as much guts as heart, and it felt more palpable than most documentaries. Then, for Zwigoff, came 2003's Bad Santa, which bore the smudge and grime of old underground comics; it was Little Rascals by way of Zwigoff's old pal and collaborator, Robert Crumb, sexed up and screwed up in a debauched and delightful way.
Art School Confidential tries to split the difference between its two predecessors: It's a coming-of-age tale dipped in smut and funk, a story of awakening and enlightenment that just wants to be a dirty joke. And it works for probably half of the movie, during which it's a dingy, messy, sophomoric bit of fun without pretensions of being anything more than Animal House for the avant-comics set.
Jerome (Max Minghella) is a cocky twerp who figures, like all high-school outsiders more likely to get punched than laid, that college will change his entire life. He's waiting for the moment when he gets into Strathmore Institute, which has sent Jerome a pamphlet full of pretty-girl promises. He keeps the Strathmore literature in his pocket because of its picture of one girl: Audrey (Sophia Myles), she of unattainable movie-starlet beauty. Should Strathmore teach him how to be a better painter, so much the better, but getting laid is the first order of business. Beatnik art chicks and seemingly innocent suburban girls prove no suitable replacement for Audrey, though. They're all just a different brand of nuts.
Clowes gets right a phenomenon that any student will recognize: the teacher who teaches because there is no other viable option left. John Malkovich, as Professor Sandiford (who was painting triangles before anyone, he boasts), beautifully pegs the blank, defeated, don't-give-a-shit stare that every instructor gets when he realizes he's forever trapped talking to kids who think they're better than he is (and probably are). "I don't have any great wisdom to impart to you people other than these four magic words," he tells them: "Don't have unrealistic expectations." Further down the has-been food chain is drunken master Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), who's rotting away in his squalid apartment while zoned out on slivovitz.
Jerome finds a screw-up buddy in cynical, scared dropout Bardo (Joel David Moore) and befriends Audrey, who introduces him to a sophisticated, grown-up world of art and commerce. But just as the movie settles into a nice, nasty-with-a-grin rhythm, it takes a dreadfully wrong turn toward a murder mystery involving a campus serial killer.
Clowes is trying to say something about the value of art, about how only the stupendously undeserving and egregiously hackneyed garner the adoration and fortunes that belong to the Truly Great. But so what? Infamy's always been more valuable than fame; it lasts longer and brings more at auction. Art School Confidential feels so fetid, so familiar. The outside-the-lines masterpiece turns into one more connect-the-dots commodity.