In 2001, the filmmaking duo of director Terry Zwigoff (“Bad Santa”) and screenwriter Daniel Clowes (“Ghost World”) created a successful cinematic version of the graphic novel “Ghost World” that reproduced the plot and emotional timbre of the original well, if not perfectly. But “Art School Confidential,” their sophomore adaptation, suffers from a disappointing combination of scant source material and overconfident execution.
The film was conceived from a short one-off story that appeared in an issue of Clowes’s quarterly “Eightball.” Unfortunately, the source material’s quality is more important to graphic novel-to-film adaptations than the duo and fans realized. The original’s underdeveloped plot and unidimensional vantage point are used to support the entire film – and although the bitter loners and miscellaneous aberrations who populate Clowes’s comics are often ghoulish, vitriolic and morally corrupt to a disturbing degree, their creator possesses a subtlety in the medium that makes his boxed-in line drawings more lifelike and compelling than any film version could be: Here, Clowes’s signature combination of humanity and misanthropy translates poorly to a mass medium.
The conduit through which the directors channel the story is would-be next- big-thing Jerome (Max Minghella, “Bee Season”), whose noble, if egotistical, intentions don’t make up for the fact that he’s been aggressively ignored by girls for most of his life. Zwigoff and Clowes present this loose sketch of the character in the film’s first few minutes, but for the most part, they stop there. The strict social and artistic hierarchy that is Strathmore Academy (a whiff of corporate sponsorship in its name, perhaps?) is constructed as such that Jerome pinballs off of everyone he meets. Zwigoff and Clowes define their ultimately boring “hero”: He’s not a stoner, a slacker, a beatnik, an art fag, a goth or any of the other genres of deluded, talentless losers who populate his classes.
Like other filmic misfits, Jerome is taken under the wing of Bardo (Joel Moore, “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”), a socially unaffiliated goofball who encourages Jerome to loosen up and sample the wide array of emotionally damaged Strathmore girls, rather than obsessing over his unrequited romantic ideal, the classically perfect (and terminally boring) nude model and art-world insider Audrey (Sophia Myles, “Tristan + Isolde”).
Jerome never finds a mentor, either – at least not in any of the bitter, real-world failures like Professor Sandiford (co-producer John Malkovich, in a role to which his effortless brand of creepiness is perfectly suited) on the faculty at Strathmore, the dissection of whose institutional corruption we’re meant to savor. A grisly subplot concerning a ruthless campus murderer floats through the scenery in the film’s first half, but taken with the laundry list of stereotypes swarming over Strathmore’s grounds, the clich