Director Terry Zwigoff knows how to do artists; we know this from Crumb. And he knows how to do Daniel Clowes adaptations; we know this from Ghost World. So I'm at a loss to explain how Art School Confidential, which by every possible indication ought to have been a slam-dunk, ended up being so empty-headed.

The film is a satire of the contemporary art world, seen through the eyes of Jerome (Max Minghella, son of director Anthony), a freshman at the prestigious Strathmore Academy in New York. Upon meeting the faculty and alumni of the school, he finds that modern-day art scholars don't know shit about shit. Which doesn't bother Jerome all that much, because he's really only in the game to get laid, and he's only offended by the compromised aesthetic at Strathmore because it devalues his own work.

The problem I have with the film is less that it makes all "great" contemporary art out to be the uninteresting work of talentless idiots (a point that I don't necessarily disagree with), and more that it's content to pursue that idea using the cheapest possible shots. From the very opening moments of the film, it's clear that the agenda will be sophomoric mockery, as we see a montage of Strathmore students revealed as posers. And not to say it's not funny, at times - in particular, I enjoyed John Malkovich's turn as a vacuous egocentrist (he brags that he was one of the first to paint triangles) - but mockery can only bring you so far. Satire works best when the creators can demonstrate how much smarter they (and by extension the audience) are than the idiots onscreen. Pointing and chortling doesn't really do that, but that's all the film is interested in, even bringing in a character, Jerome's new bestest friend Bardo (Joel Moore) whose sole purpose is to make snarky comments about clichés, not realizing that Ironist is itself a cliché these days.

So what gets laughed at? Horribly bad filmmakers (Jerome's roommate is a Kevin Smith clone making a slasher-documentary), wunderkinds (Jerome's antagonist is an amateur - literally, we'll find out - whose childlike doodlings are praised by all of Jerome's classmates), art dealers (I can't explain why without spoiling the plot). One character is not mocked throughout the entire film, and that is the teacher played by Anjelica Huston. I think it is not accidental that she is also the only character besides Jerome who seems to care at all for art made before the early 1990's (and the film does take a decidedly conservative, even anti-intellectual approach to art, which makes sense in a way, given Zwigoff's relationship to Robert Crumb, who would have been quickly drummed from a place like Strathmore).

Other less-objectionable characters include Audrey (Sophia Myles), the nude model who becomes the object of all Jerome's desires, and Jimmy (Jim Broadbent, having no idea what to do with his accent), a Strathmore grad and great failure who teaches Jerome that the only way to find success is bribery and sex (he also gives the film a jolt of ugly, and misplaced homophobia, that dies quickly and goes nowhere). Steve Buscemi is uncredited as the local coffeeshop owner who prides himself on giving new artists their first step towards greatness, and gives the best (or at least subtlest) performance in the film.

I'd kind of like it if that were all the film had going on, because it does atmosphere and attitude well enough. But there comes a point when the plot begins, in which a serial killer stalking campus begins to strike with greater frequency, and Lord Contrivance graces the film with his presence. Perhaps if the film had started out as a murder mystery, I would have liked it a bit more, but that it comes midway through the second act gives the whole thing a lopsided feel.

In total, there's just not a lot happening here. The film lives and dies on its one-note script, and sometimes the note is played very well, but more often it's just kind of...there.