Insistently sullen, nihilistic, and successful to the point of smugness at transmitting buzzkill, Art School Confidential is the second collaboration between art-house cartoonist Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff. The first, of course, was 2001's haunting Ghost World, taken from the pages of Clowes' fine subterranean homesick graphic novel about two teenage outsider girls and one middle-aged outsider guy, the three of them itchy under their cloaks of irony. And the success of the creative collaboration was enhanced by the ability of lithe actors Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi to suggest the painfully tender skin beneath all that emotional armor in a movie that provided space to expose those bruises.
Any such points of entry and empathy are missing in this follow-up, which stars Bee Season's Max Minghella, all full-lipped and Candide-like, as a teenage outsider named Jerome Platz who plans on becoming the most famous artist in the 21st century bait, he hopes, for attracting girls. (It worked for Picasso.) Accepted into a prestigious institution of higher art making, Jerome (his name suggesting an alienated type out of a J.D. Salinger story) works doggedly, if unexceptionally, at his drawings. But surrounded by poseurs, phonies, goof-offs, blowhards, and members of the artsirati including John Malkovich as a snakish teacher, Ethan Suplee as a talentless would-be filmmaker, and Jim Broadbent as a fetid failure of an alumnus Jerome learns that the reality of art-world success has nothing to do with talent, and everything to do with scheming. He also falls in love with an attractive life-drawing model (Tristan & Isolde's Sophia Myles) and learns that muses can be shallow, too.
Life, in other words, stinks. And artists (of which Clowes and Zwigoff are esteemed avatars of the hipster set) stink even more; in fact, as Art School Confidential spreads its stain of bitterness, artists are dismissed as no better than murderers. (By the way, there's a serial killer on the loose.) Everybody's got the makings of a phony in him, just waiting to crawl out and accept a grant, an offer of easy sex from an ''art school skank,'' a one-man show.
And the point is? Well, nil, which is a problem. It is a phenomenon worth noting when Malkovich's antics seem mild and when Steve Buscemi (who cameos as a status-conscious restaurant owner preening about his ties to hot artists) must substitute volubility for motive. Zwigoff, who made a great biographical documentary about the original dark cat of underground comix, R. Crumb, in 1995, and the best dyspeptic antidote to Christmas treacle ever with 2003's Bad Santa, gets so deep into self-flagellation or maybe it's exhibitionism that at some point he and Clowes (who wrote the screenplay, based on his own comic-book story) turn the project into a tantrum against sincerity, an excoriation of anyone so foolish as to want to take a class and, maybe, learn something. Whether the joke's meant to be on us or on the storytellers, I'm not buying the punchline.