As in Swigoff's previous indie works "Crumb" and "Ghost World," the sympathetic outsider takes center stage. In this case, it's Jerome (Max Minghella), a Picasso-loving bully target who can't wait to leave high school behind. He imagines he'll find refuge as a student at the Strathmore Institution's prestigious art program, where like-minded individuals will appreciate his aesthetic sensibilities and talents. Upon arrival, Jerome discovers that art school, like a specialized microcosm of the outside world, is similarly comprised of bullies, only here they choose cerebral rather than physical intimidation. Under the prodding of his instructor Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich), Jerome criticizes the work of a classmate during an open discussion, instantly earning him the disdain of his colleagues.
Further undermining Jerome's dreams of finding a creative utopia is competition in the form of his clean-cut classmate Jonah (Matt Keeslar). An ambiguous figure, Jonah becomes the star of the department by practicing a sort of art naif that utterly confounds Jerome and his classics-leaning taste. To make matters worse, artist model and Jerome's dream girl Audrey (Sophia Myles) begins to spend more time with Jonah. Desperate to make his mark at Strathmore and win Audrey's attention, Jerome decides to try to pass off the paintings of a new acquaintance -- a failed, alcoholic artist with a volatile temper named Jimmy (Jim Broadbent) -- as his own for a semester-end project.
The satirical distance between the ideal of "art for art's sake" and the ego-driven personalities looking for fame, fortune and their big gallery opening disappointingly takes a backseat as the film progresses. Sometimes venturing off as a romance focusing on Jerome and Audrey's burgeoning relationship, other times functioning as an uncomfortable coming-of-ager, while all the time pushing a mystery crime-drama element involving a serial killer and random victims around the campus, "Art School Confidential's" various plotlines never quite gel to form a cohesive whole. The cast, particularly Max Minghella as the hapless would-be artist, makes the best of the inconsistent material, but only John Malkovich, tossing off such advice as "go to business school or website school if you want to make money" with his trademark aplomb, manages to maintain the film's sardonic coolness. Starring Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, Joel David Moore, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent and Matt Keeslar. Directed by Terry Zwigoff. Written by Daniel Clowes. Produced by Daniel Clowes, Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich and Russell Smith. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Comedy. Rated R for language including sexual references, nudity and a scene of violence. Running time: 102 min