In the late '80s, cartoonist Daniel Clowes included a short piece called "Art School Confidential" in an issue of his Eightball comics. I found this snarky expose to be extremely funny and right on the mark, especially as I myself was in art school.
Two decades later, Clowes, as screenwriter and co-producer, reteams with Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff to concoct an adaptation so loose that it's essentially an entirely new work. (I counted only three or four passing references to the comic.) With Clowes adding characters and a story arc, his witty poison pen cartoon has become a confused live action feature. In the process, those nasty art school secrets get diluted.
I admit, I spent much of the first hour of this movie comparing the authenticity of its art school reference points to my own experiences at CalArts. It wasn't until a particularly painful moment in the life of its young protagonist Jerome (Max Minghella, son of director Anthony) that the real story became clear to me: this isn't about art school. It's about loneliness, jealousy, and disillusionment. Yet whereas Clowes and Zwigoff made that sentiment work in the bittersweet Ghost World, it's more muddled and less memorable this time around.
There's a gnawing sense of misogyny in the film's first half, some strained comedy in a few misguided scenes, and numerous problems with the character of Jerome, who as an aspiring artist is such a blank slate (no pun intended) that he's unrealistic. He's shy and virginal, yet he sincerely hopes to become the greatest artist of the 21st century. He has talent, yet he's clueless about the kind of art he wants to make. He apparently knows a great deal about contemporary art, yet he naively tells people that his favorite artist is Picasso. And so on.
Clowes, who went to art school, is now in his third decade as a comics artist. He's familiar with the negative aspects of the art world – its competitiveness, its politics. When his script digs into the meaning of art and the tribulations of artists, the film gets real. But this gets lost amidst a murder mystery (yes, really, though somehow it works), an uninteresting romance, annoying supporting characters, and throwaway gags.
While the film retains the creepy ambiguity of one of Clowes's long-form comics, Zwigoff's flat direction left me cold. I got the sense that many scenes had to be trimmed by editors because Zwigoff let his actors drag the scenes out. There are still some shining moments, in particular Jim Broadbent as a bitter drunken artist. If the film had met his level of commitment, Art School Confidential would've been something special. Instead, it may only be of passing interest to those who went to art school, or who pretend that they did.