Eric D. Snider

Art School Confidential

Terry Zwigoff, director of "Ghost World" and "Bad Santa," reunites with his "Ghost World" collaborator Daniel Clowes to bring us ... a lazy, unsatisfying comedy noir called "Art School Confidential."

'Tis a pity, because Zwigoff and Clowes are talented guys, both separately and together. But this effort is only moderately funny to begin with, then takes a turn into a plot-heavy world where the laughs are nearly forgotten. It's like an artist defacing his work when his work wasn't that good in the first place.

It's set at Manhattan's Strathmore Institute, a liberal arts college with the requisite types of students: pretentious beatniks, vulgar filmmakers, gay fashion designers, angry lesbians, vegan hippies, and a few 50-year-old women who are taking art classes because their kids have left home and they have nothing else to do.

Jerome (Max Minghella), a budding artist and incoming freshman, is normal, which makes him abnormal. He is immediately smitten with Audrey (Sophia Myles), a fellow student who works as a nude model in Jerome's drawing class. Against all odds, Audrey likes Jerome, too, and things begin to look up for him.

In the background, however, there is intrigue: A serial killer dubbed the Strathmore Strangler has been bumping off students for several months and has apparently started up again now that the fall term has begun. And in the foreground, there's an untalented student named Jonah (Matt Keeslar) who keeps being lauded by the bitter Prof. Sandiford (John Malkovich), much to the annoyance of Jerome, whose own work keeps being overlooked and who starts to lose Audrey's attention, too.

The film begins astutely, offering scathing indictments of the art world as ruthless and commercial. The pretentious babble of art-school students is mocked, and so is the imbecility and shallowness of much of what is called "art." Jerome meets a man named Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), an old drunken wreck who was once an artist and now lives in obscurity in a rat-hole of an apartment. He tells Jerome what the art world is really like, and it's not pretty.

But before long, the film veers into the serial-killer plot, half-heartedly trying for laughs while it goes through the motions of solving the murders. It's a daring ploy -- come for the laughs, stay for the pitch-black dissertation on art and fame -- and Zwigoff and Clowes just don't pull it off. Max Minghella has a certain soulfulness as Jerome, and I think he'd have been a good choice for the role if the script had been better. But what's here is weak, a freshman-level effort by guys who should be at least sophomores by now.

Grade: C

Rated R, some mild sexuality, a fair amount of non-sexual nudity (art models), a lot of harsh profanity, a little violence

1 hr., 42 min.

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