Let’s pretend for a moment Art School Confidential isn’t really about the perils of being a Midwestern know-nothing freshman plunged into the aloof pretensions, sexual awakenings, and political maneuverings of an East Coast college art program. Even though it is unerringly specific in its satirical barbs against the pseudo-sophistication of its student characters as it is nailing the thinly veiled desperation of the instructors (a perfectly cast, scene-stealing John Malkovich is at the top of his game as a vaguely swishy professorial type who, between clenched teeth, bitterly recalls he was painting colored symmetrical pop-art triangles when nobody was doing that!), Art School Confidential is really a tale of demolished idealism appropriate for any creative job market. The young hero Jerome (Max Minghella, appealingly sly) starts out wanting to be as great an artist as Pablo Picasso, but when his fledgling attempts are scorned by his peers and, more important, when the hot model chick he falls for (Sophia Myles) dumps him for the bad-boy jock with a heart of gold (Matt Keeslar), he bitterly realizes other ways of getting ahead: artistic plagiarism.
The matter-of-fact filmmaking style is made up for by the vitality of the all-around fantastic performances, the striking use of color (much of the movie looks like an eye-popping comic-book panel), and dialogue that’s as tasty as an Ernest Lehman/Clifford Odets cookie full of arsenic. Art School Confidential is also poignant and illuminates egghead depression as vividly as director Terry Zwigoff’s previous, better films Ghost World and Crumb, but it is unable to find a satisfactory way of tying up all its loose ends. Unlike the previous films, which allowed the stories to drift off into the ether, Zwigoff and collaborating screenwriter/graphic novelist Daniel Clowes attempt to make a point about how art and commerce intertwine in a popularity contest, and notoriety is the quickest way to make a name for yourself. (Just ask talented people like Richard Kern, Cindy Sherman, or Damien Hirst.) It’s a valid statement, but in making it Zwigoff and Clowes have to rely heavily on the contrivances of plot, a police investigation, and a broad-fire social statement that lands one of the main characters in prison and another character or two dead on the floor. It overreaches in a way Zwigoff and Clowes never need to, because when they keep their aim on targets closer to earth, they’re both savage and true.