Terry Zwigoff hates you. Daniel Clowes? He wants you dead. Five years ago, you might have been safe. In Ghost World (2001), record collector/authorial stand-in Seymour admits that he "can't relate to 99 percent of humanity." But since that first collaboration, director Zwigoff and screenwriter Clowes have soured a bit. In Art School Confidential, art student/authorial stand-in Jerome shouts, "All of humanity is too stupid to live!"
Misanthropy can be incredibly entertaining, so long as that hatred draws blood. But that extra percentage point of venom has skewed Clowes and Zwigoff's aim. Ghost World had an unerring ear for mean-spiritedness, beating up on easy targets like high-school jocks ("He better watch out or he'll get AIDS when he date-rapes her") without resorting to cliché. Art School Confidential, by contrast, turns the art of hating people into a rote exercise. The movie accomplishes the simple-enough task of demonstrating that art school types are pretentious and self-centered. What it fails to reveal is why anyone should care.
After getting picked on in high school, Jerome (Max Minghella) heads off to fictional New York City art school the Strathmore Institute to escape the meatheads. The opening shot of the campus reveals a bunch of posers: a guy toting a guitarless guitar case, a tattooed chick clutching a stuffed bear, a filmmaker who only uses his camera to shoot girls' butts. A wiseass classmate (Joel Moore) soon reveals that every student is a stock character: There's the "vegan holy man," the empty-nester mom, the kiss-ass who does paintings of the teacher, and the know-it-all whose art is about "questioning the nature of aesthetic experience."
Jerome is the sensitive, artsy guy who wants to be an artist so he'll, maybe, possibly, get laid. He's chasing Audrey (Kate Winslet look-alike Sophia Myles), the model who disrobes in front of his figure-drawing class. Jerome gets disillusioned, though, when his ladylove and classmates fall for a fratty-looking guy named Jonah (Matt Keeslar), who paints simple cars and tanks that look like the icons you'd find on a 12-year-old's bedspread. (Jerome's artistic chops are debatable: His self-portrait looks less like Max Minghella than Pete Sampras.)
Art School Confidential is worth watching for the small details: a pan back at a gallery show that reveals a sculpture made of classroom chairs, the "controversial" paintings inscribed with slogans like "LEGALIZE GENOCIDE," the secret hug Jerome's parents' share when he says he has a girlfriend (they suspected that he might be gay). The big picture, though, will be familiar to anyone who's ever heard a guy complain about his MFA program. The teachers are tiresome pedants. The students are phonies who celebrate chickenscratch. If you want to get ahead, according to a filthy-looking, alcoholic Strathmore grad named Jimmy (a commanding Jim Broadbent), "you have to be good at fellatio and licking ass." (Maybe so, but Zwigoff and Clowes get a bit fixated on the idea that the art world is full of gay predators.)
This portrait of art school as suckfest is particularly tired considering that these filmmakers have drawn it before. In depicting Enid's remedial art class in Ghost World, with its hippie-dippy performance artist teacher and a student who makes a sculpture out of coat hangers as a statement about abortion, Zwigoff and Clowes make a funny, concise statement about how art is taught and practiced without delving too deep into internecine politics. Perhaps the lack of sharpness here comes from the fact that Ghost World was a graphic novel before Clowes adapted it for the screen, while Art School Confidential is a loose adaptation of a four-page comic. Without a book's worth of panels to crib from, Clowes grafts a murder mystery—a serial killer known as the "Strathmore Strangler" is at large—onto a thin boy-loses-girl story. The blank-faced Minghella can carry off the role of a wide-eyed nebbish, but when the script requires that Jerome get disillusioned and angry, he looks just as lost and confused as we are.
There are two types of misanthropes. Ghost World's Enid is the kind of miserable, maladjusted person who'd be fun to stand next to at a party. Jerome is the kind who you'd stand next to only to direct him to the nearest open window. Instead of jumping out, he'd probably complain about the draft. Misanthropy only reflects badly on the misanthrope when the people he's kvetching about aren't worth the energy. Like an annoying art student, Art School Confidential isn't worth hating. You're better off just ignoring it until it goes away.