It seems a little disingenuous to criticize Terry Zwigoff's new film for being too unsubtle and broad when his last film was Bad Santa, one of the most unsubtle and broad films ever made. But Art School Confidential is less a follow-up to the gleefully nihilistic Santa than it is to 2001's Ghost World, Zwigoff's first narrative feature and first collaboration with comic-book creator and screenwriter Daniel Clowes, who also wrote Confidential.
On the surface both films tackle similar subject matter—young love from the perspective of the artsy geek—but while Ghost World was warm and real even under its cynical veneer, Confidential feels forced and gimmicky, and the only reason you don't always notice that its central romance doesn't work is because you're so often distracted by the extraneous half-realized characters and rusty plot mechanics.
The film isn't just a romance, either: It's a murder mystery, set at the fictional Strathmore Institute, a New York City art college populated, it appears, almost entirely by stereotypes. One of the ways you can tell he's the main character is that soulful Jerome (Max Minghella) is one of the only people who isn't a stereotype, although in this film that mostly means that he gets two dimensions instead of one. Those two dimensions are: He wants to be a great artist, and he wants to get laid. Specifically, he wants to score with hot drawing model Audrey (Sophia Myles), the daughter of a famous artist.
While Jerome makes his feeble efforts to woo Audrey, which are mostly stymied by a frat-boy-looking rival (Matt Keeslar), a mysterious strangler is stalking the campus, killing off students and providing inspiration for Jerome's angry filmmaker roommate (Ethan Suplee). The movie isn't much of a murder mystery, though, and the whodunit comes off more as a crutch for Clowes to cover up his lapses in character development and inability to build a believable romance.
Zwigoff still has a sense for dark comedy, though, and anyone who's been to art school or ever met an artist or even seen a piece of art will find something to recognize in the simplistic but often funny types that populate the film's edges. It's not so much a problem that minor characters are silly and over the top if the core characters are interesting and layered, but Jerome's tortured soul is ultimately a lot less compelling than the comical self-importance of some of his classmates.
Minghella is a bit of a wet blanket and has nothing on Ghost World's Thora Birch, and Zwigoff wastes Anjelica Huston and Steve Buscemi in throwaway roles. John Malkovich sinks his teeth into the part of Jerome's art professor and scales back his typical hamminess to give the film's one genuinely affecting performance as a man who maintains a veneer of authority even as his own artistic ambitions are slowly slipping away. It's a shame that he essentially disappears from the film as it moves toward its thoroughly preposterous conclusion.
Given the lyrical way that Ghost World ended, Confidential's limp finish is just another reminder of how Clowes and Zwigoff have failed to live up to their last effort.