For a Hollywood outsider and full-time curmudgeon, director Terry Zwigoff has had a pretty good run. The 1994 documentary ''Crumb," ''Ghost World" (2001), and ''Bad Santa" (2003) are all honest, undiluted expressions of misanthropy, hilarious and even touching in their blanket dismissal of mainstream America culture.
Zwigoff's overdue for a turkey, in other words. ''Art School Confidential" is it.
It looks great on paper. In fact, it did look great on paper when underground cartoonist Daniel Clowes drew the story back in 1991 as a one-off feature in his comic book ''Eightball." Clowes, who based the screenplay for Zwigoff's ''Ghost World" on his own graphic novel of that name, was an art school survivor himself (BFA, Pratt, 1984), and he vented his loathing of the backstabbing poseurs he found there in a four-page masterpiece of bile.
What the original ''Art School Confidential" didn't have was characters or a plot, which a movie generally requires. (''Ghost World" had both, and the resulting film's a fractured gem.) Clowes, adapting his own work again, has to come up with a naive young hero (Max Minghella, son of director Anthony), a love interest (Sophia Myles as a well-connected art-world beauty), and a dramatic arc about a mysterious campus strangler on which to hang his dank observations. This is where ''Confidential" falls terribly flat. Neither writer nor director has the stomach for such conventions; ironically, they come off looking like the naifs.
Until the machinations kick in, the movie's good, mean fun. Minghella's Jerome Stoob is a suburban babe-in-the-city who wants to be the next Picasso, but he's cruelly disabused of his ideals within minutes of arriving at Strathmore Institute for his freshman year. His roommates include a closeted fashion queen (Nick Swardson) and a foul-mouthed filmmaker (Ethan Suplee); his mentor, Professor Sandiford (an elegantly jaded John Malkovich), informs the class that ''only one out of a hundred of you will ever make a living as an artist." (Cut to all the students thinking, ''I'll be that one.")
Jerome gets a tour guide in the lanky form of Bardo (Joel Moore), a cynic who thumbnails the other students: angry lesbian, vegan holy man, kiss-ass, mom. This is easy stuff, an expansion on the art-class scenes with Illeana Douglas in ''Ghost World," but such drive-bys have more energy than anything else here. Jerome's worship of Myles's Audrey -- a life-study model with a famous artist dad -- develops in fits and starts, and she's too much the detached glamour girl to work as a character.
Zwigoff and Clowes have more luck with the adults: Malkovich's Sandiford, Anjelica Huston as a crisp art history professor, an uncredited Steve Buscemi as the owner of the local coffee-shop/gallery. Best of all is Jim Broadbent as Jimmy, a Strathmore graduate who long ago had his moment in the sun and is now a quivering, alcoholic ball of rage. ''Just think, Jerome," Jimmy crows, gesturing to his rat-hole of an apartment, ''Some day this could all be yours!"
That angry governing urge is spot-on. Art school is a crock, says the movie; pretentious psychobabble reigns; the more insipid the ''self-expression," the more lavishly it's rewarded. Everyone talks twee aesthetics while lusting after million-dollar gallery deals. It's enough to drive a talented young kid into nihilism.
Minghella is too unformed, though -- as an actor, maybe as a person -- to make his character's torment believable, and ''Art School Confidential" trips over its feet in the last third. A weirdly straight fellow student (Matt Keeslar) is such a success with his crude artwork that Jerome stoops to imitation and worse; this plot-strand intertwines with the serial-killer business and suddenly the movie's just another bad melodrama.
It becomes the sort of thing Zwigoff usually holds in contempt, and how depressing is that? This may have been only a matter of time. Unyielding comic pessimism is a tightrope only few walk successfully -- H.L. Mencken, George Carlin, and Robert Crumb among them. Zwigoff and Clowes can be forgiven for losing their balance, but that doesn't make their movie any better.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.