Ghost World, Crumb, and Bad Santa director Terry Zwigoff has a remarkable gift for nailing characters in just a few telling details. He's capable of both indelibly establishing their essence and satirically destroying them with a few devastating blows. And in the simpatico oeuvre of comics artist and screenwriter Daniel Clowes, who provides the art-school setting of their new collaboration, Art School Confidential, Zwigoff has a rich comic gallery of pretentious boobs to lampoon. But his satirical target just seems too easy this time around: It's hard to spoof institutions that already veer so close to self-parody.
Zwigoff and Clowes' Ghost World follow-up casts dreamy, pouty-lipped Max Minghella as an anxious art-school freshman desperate to become a great artist and score with hot art chicks, albeit not necessarily in that order. Minghella arrives at college filled with idealism and hope that inevitably gives way to cynicism and mounting despair amid the misery, grasping ambition, and loathsome pretension of art-school life.
Minghella starts out as little more than a weak-willed sponge eager to soak in the ideas, prejudices, and pretensions of the stronger-willed teachers and students around him. His passive blankness certainly rings true of the freshman experience, but it doesn't make for a particularly compelling or charismatic protagonist. Zwigoff and Clowes score big, consistent laughs in Confidential's first hour, especially in a standout early sequence with Jim Broadbent as a bitter art-school alum who looms as a horrifying vision of what Minghella's future might hold. But without a strong protagonist like Bad Santa's Billy Bob Thornton, or a compelling central relationship like Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi's in Ghost World, the film's satire feels glib and curdled, nearly as adolescent as the narrow collegiate mindset it lampoons. In previous films, Zwigoff's underlying affection for his quirky anti-heroes cut through the free-floating misanthropy, but with the wan Minghella as its weak lead, this film runs out of steam toward the end. Art School Confidential constitutes two-thirds of a worthy follow-up to Ghost World, but it doesn't feel nearly as substantial.