"Art School Confidential", written by and based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes and directed by Terry Zwigoff, both of whom worked on the classic "Ghost World", is a disappointing film.
What the film gets right is the whole culture of Art School. The school is under funded and located in the worst part of town, yet students flock to receive any little bit of wisdom to get their career started. It captures many moments of going to an art school, from the pompous student who asks questions to make him seem more intelligent to the professors who are as desperate for recognition as their students. During Jerome's first day in class, Jonah points out all of the other stereotypes in the school; the angry lesbian, the film student, the emotional girl, the hippie, you get the idea.
The problem is that the film doesn't go beyond these stereotypes. Yes, it's amusing to point them out, to acknowledge their existence, but the joke doesn't go any further, do anything new, and falls short. Once the stereotypes are acknowledged, the next step is to take them to another level. That doesn't happen. What happens when a joke falls short? It becomes tedious and boring.
Max Minghella is good as Jerome, the virginal art student who is bombarded with new experiences. There seems to be a slow burn under the surface as he has more and more new things thrown at him. But the role is not defined clearly enough. For instance, when Jerome states his favorite artist is Picasso, another person makes fun of him. Yet, later at a costume party, he dresses as Picasso. Is this a joke or how he actually feels?
The relationship between Jerome and Audrey is interesting, more so because of Jerome's virginal angst. Sophia Myles is boring in this role. Throughout, she plays everything very even keel and nothing really seems to change her attitude towards anything. During an early date, she uses Jerome as an excuse to get out spending time with her famous father, but this doesn't go anywhere. Later, as their relationship becomes more complicated, she doesn't seem to realize and she starts dating someone else. But why? Clearly, Jerome is attracted to her physical attributes, but she doesn't appear to have any personality.
Watching "Confidential", I chuckled occasionally as Zwigoff and Clowes threw out an occasional curve ball observation, but as the jokes began to wear thin, I kept hoping for another level, another idea, something to sustain the black humor. As I realized the film wasn't going to work, I tried to pinpoint why and I couldn't quite figure it out. Yes, the jokes are easy and one note. Yes, the performances are artificially broad in some cases, but these elements should work together and provide some fun. But they don't mesh. What is the problem here? The combination of these elements, an okay lead, a boring lead actress and established actors who do nothing with their roles seems to have created a mess.
Throughout the film, there is another element detracting from what should be a good black comedy. The Strathmore Strangler is a pervasive element in the film. We almost know more about this character before we know anything about Jerome. The moment Jerome arrives in his dorm and he meets one of his roommates Vince (Ethan Suplee, TVs "My Name is Earl"), an aspiring film student who wants to make a mockumentary about the Strangler, Vince gives him a quick rundown of the murders. Throughout, people keep referring to the villain. Yet, the constant mentions seem sort of out of place. They are just that, mentions and they don't seem to concern the main characters all that much. Of course, as the film nears its finale, the killer becomes a little more predominant. But the element is an unnecessary distraction. Because the idea isn't developed enough, the filmmakers would have been better off to remove it and concentrate on the comedic elements.
The one interesting visual moment in the film involves a depiction of one of the Strangler's murders. But does that even have a place in a black comedy about art school?
"Confidential" has the germ of a good film, but the filmmakers don't follow through on it.