In the all-too-brief moments of art school inanity glimpsed in Ghost World, director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes perfectly captured the loopy pretension of the art student and the world they inhabit. Which is why their second collaboration, Art School Confidential, a film that occupies itself with almost nothing but the art school la-la land, should have been money in the bank.
More to the point, Art School Confidential should have been a dead-on, no-brainer of social satire -- especially given how adept Zwigoff and Clowes are at painting the broad ridiculousness of the human condition with a fine-tipped brush.
Perhaps Ghost World presented audiences with too lofty an impression of these two creators because their second film is the antithesis of that earlier work. Where there was once glee and giddiness at poking fun of how screwed up people are -- and making characters endure real-deal troubles in order to over come them to better themselves -- there is now lifelessness, very little humor, and, worse, an utter disregard for character. And where there was once individuality there is now Hollywood replication in the guise of (failed) satire.
The problem lies in the material, certainly, but more importantly on the filmmakers' ability -- or lack thereof -- to keep focus.
What begins as a black comedy about Jerome (Max Minghella), an aspiring artist attempting to navigate the minefield of Strathmore's art school and the ridiculous student body he has to take classes with while trying to woo the desirable class model, Audrey (Sophia Myles), who shows very little romantic interest in Jerome throughout 90 percent of the film, becomes a murder mystery thriller about the "Strathmore Strangler," an anonymous, random killer that, honestly, appears in one form or another in only five minutes of the film.
While this tonal shift is abrupt, jarring and utterly ridiculous when the film ends -- the conclusion of Art School Confidential is in no way justified by what came before it -- the film falls apart when Zwigoff and Clowes, with only 20 minutes left in the film, seek refuge behind and buy into the same mainstream bullshit they spent the past 80 minutes condemning and ridiculing.
For example, Vince (Ethan Suplee) is a Quentin Tarantino/Kevin Smith aspirant who is making a movie about the Strathmore Strangler. Every time we see him cutting his film, save the scene in which he's screening a rough cut of it for his producer -- his grandfather -- the film is a jumble of trite, nonsensical dialogue and scenarios. The same could be said description could go for the ending of Art School Confidential. Zwigoff and Clowes promote to main plot status a half-baked subplot about a killer at the expense of the plot they began with, that of Jerome as a wannabe Picasso.
No where is this abandonment more prominent than with the character of Bardo (Joel Moore), Jerome's friend throughout the first three-fourths of the film. During that time, Bardo plays somewhat a significant role, acting as the Jerome's entrée into the art school world, both in class and outside of it. Bardo introduces him to people that play bigger roles later in the film, and it's his influence that initiates many of the good moments in the early parts of the film.
But then he's dropped. When Jerome is sulking about losing Audrey to an art-school hack-cum-meathead, Bardo gets exasperated with Jerome's morosity, walks out of frame, out of scene -- and out of film. What? How does that work? A major character just disappears for the final fourth of a film with nary an explanation in sight? "Bogus" comes to mind as a way to describe this turn of events, but that lets Zwigoff and Clowes off the hook a bit.
"Sophomoric" is a better way to look at this. And, indeed, the film as a whole. Excuse the pun, though, because although this is Zwigoff's and Clowes' second film together it shouldn't have felt so empty and lazy considering how full and efficient Ghost World was. They set the film up in such a way that success should've been inevitable. Instead, they get bogged down in Hollywood machinations, start to lose focus, and before you know it the film's over and you feel used, misled, and, worst of all, bored.