Aren't Dan Clowes and Terry Zwigoff a little old to be settling scores from their school days? Screenwriter Clowes went to Pratt during New York City's Koch administration, so director Zwigoff dresses the exterior sets with graffiti, abandoned cars, and piles of trash—another garbage strike?—that belong to the days of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But the fatally ambitious college kids at Pratt analogue Strathmore—set in an unnamed N.Y.C.—ooze attitude, dangle cell phones, and do their film editing on Final Cut Pro. Pure Bloomberg, in other words. The bitterness of one era doesn't mesh with the jadedness of another in this adaptation of Clowes' four-page 1991 comic book vignette. Zwigoff had more to work with in 2002's Ghost World, where Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch at least had room to explore their ambivalent feelings about womanhood and Steve Buscemi. He shows up here as an art-gallery schlemiel with delusions of grandeur—a common affliction in Confidential's hothouse of gallery blossoms.
Dewiest is freshman Jerome (Max Minghella), a virginal suburban kid mightily resentful that the world has not yet recognized his inner Picasso. So far as girls are concerned, he can sketch them but he can't seduce them. Naturally, he falls for campus beauty Audrey (Sophia Myles), who conveniently models nude for his class. Rival for her affections, however, is the handsome yet suspiciously square Jonah (Matt Keeslar), whose dazzlingly childish, nonironic paintings most impress their professor (John Malkovich, relatively restrained).
But Jerome isn't as nice as he appears: He catches the bug of misanthropy from a drunken old painter (Jim Broadbent), and begins to spout phrases like a certain failed Austrian art student determined to prove to the world he was a genius. Nor is Jonah what he seems; in fact, he turns out to be the film's most interesting character, a revelation that comes rather late but helps tie up Confidential's scattered story. (There's a strangler stalking the campus; and Jerome's would-be Scorsese of a roommate, played like a buffalo in heat by Ethan Suplee, overobviously betokens all the vulgarity Clowes and Zwigoff have suffered in Hollywood.)
In Clowes' original comic (now reprinted with the script and a few new sketches by Fantagraphics, $14.95), the grotesque caricatures of Pratt losers and posers don't require any depth—just a caption, and we flip the page. The movie sometimes reaches the same comic effect in montage—simply watching desperate kids fling anything, even themselves, at the canvas—but also provides glib commentary like a National Lampoon movie: Van Wilder Goes to Art School, perhaps. It's more captioned than written. And Zwigoff, despite working from Clowes' strong and specific original vision, is still shockingly indifferent to camera work, lighting, and staging. For a guy who loves comic books and their creators (see Crumb), he has no visual sense. (How perfect that Clerks writer-director Kevin Smith should show up in a cameo.)
The movie is more a footnote to Ghost World than an outright failure—a little background on the artist in training. Four pages was about right the first time. You can't blame Zwigoff's excessive cynicism for the film's satirical shortcomings, because Bad Santa was pretty damn cynical—and still gloriously vulgar and funny. Here, he's evenly contemptuous of philistines and wanna-be artistes. Whether an unrecognized talent or a famous, untalented hack—it's all the same prison for the miserable soul. Too bad his own filmmaking aesthetic never gets beyond that one joke.