Talk about getting mileage out of a metaphor. On our Sundance video podcast, James Rocchi cracked that last year's Sundance hit Saw reminded him of David Fincher's Seven ... as performed by the Max Fischer Players, the grade school company spearheaded by the protagonist of Rushmore. I tried to come up with my own analogy to bring to the table, in discussing Art School Confidential, Terry Zwigoffs latest collaboration with Ghost World creator Daniel Clowes, but James' framework just seemed so very apt. So, in 25 words or less: Art School Confidential is exactly what would happen if the Max Fischer Players tackled Heathers. In other words, it's a stilted satire of teenage passion and apathy, sex and death and crime. And like a classic Max Fischer production (if such a thing exists), it's so concerned with aping style that it never bothers to consider its characters as people.
Is it fair to blame a film based on a graphic novel for being comic booky? Unequivocably, the answer is no – unless that film was made by the same guys that made Ghost World. In that case, different standards apply. In a reiteration of a problem we saw several times this year at Sundance, it's a puzzle as to how Zwigoff got a cast this strong on the basus of a script this weak. John Malkovich is second-billed (but then, he also co-produced); small and smaller parts are played by Angelica Huston, Steve Buscemi, Jim Broadbent, and others. Art School's ostensible star is Max Minghella, a relative newcomer whose work in a pair of last year's films (the overrated Syriana, the underrrated Bee Season) landed him at the top of my list of Barely Legal Celebrity Crushes (I'm also very interested in the guy who plays Logan on Gilmore Girls). Minghella's work here is beyond reproach, but he doesn't have much to work with.
Part of the problem is that Clowes' script wastes an awful lot of time shoddily paving the way for a satire that comes way too late in the game. How funny are jokes about art school stereotypes – the ardent asskissers, the fashionable feminists, the daughter of an icon who slums it as a painting model – in the first place? I suspect, to the grand majority of the audience, the answer is, "not very" – this stuff is simply too inaccesible. Speaking as someone who actually has a BFA, I have my own reason for forgetting to laugh – the "observations" that drive the satire seem uncharacteristically cold.
Clowes' Ghost World script works as well as it does because he's got an obvious affection for his lead character. It's a movie that feels for a teenage girl's sudden compulsion to dye her hair green and dress like the most dedicated groupie The Stranglers never had. Ghost World cares about Thora Birch's Enid, even as it's laughing at her. Confidential has one potentially really great, cunning joke at its heart, which is that no overzealous freshman art student has ever caused any real harm to anyone but themselves. But without a heavy dose of goodwill on the part of the filmmakers, it's a joke that's impossible for the actors to pull off. In scene after scene, Clowes and Zwigoff essentially put Jerome under indictment, to the point where I actually felt sorry for Minghella for having to play him (I think it was pity I felt ... I don't know. It could have been something else). The filmmakers obviously don't care enough about their protagonist's plight to present it with any kind of sympathy; it's puzzling that they'd expect anyone else to put in the emotional effort.