It's not that it fails to be funny; as a comedy, it's tremendously successful. The problem is that the plot is, I think, supposed to be a play on a set of movie clichés, but it simply comes off as a clichéd movie plot, rarely rising to the point where the hackneyed story becomes in itself a source of humor or commentary.
Which isn't to say it's all bad. Screenwriter Dan Clowes (who's one of the best living writers in the Western and Northern Hemispheres) definitely has a feel for the cringe-worthy characters one finds in an art school. Which is good, because the majority of Art School Confidential occurs in an urban art school.
But it begins in a suburban high school where young Jerome is being bullied by what can only be described as "bullies." As Jerome matures, the bullies stop bullying him and start using him for his tremendous artistic talent.
Of course, drawing pictures for boys is not what motivates the young artist. It's drawing pictures for girls, followed, he hopes, by the removal of their undergarments. Sadly, however, young Jerome has never tasted the pleasures of the non-undergarment-clad female form.
So he goes off to art school, where at the very least, there will be nude models. In a horrifying twist of fate, though, on his first day in drawing class, the model is a middle-aged naked man who has shaved his pubic region.
Jerome also encounters all the art-school stereotypes, neatly narrated by his friend Bardo (Joel Moore) and evinced by the behavior of his self-involved instructor (John Malkovich). The dialogue and action here are legitimately funny, especially the segment where Jerome tries to get laid by heading home with a series of two-dimensional art girls, including the emotionally unstable beatnik, the stuffed-animal-loving Kewpie doll and a young woman who is so generous and free with her body that the less-cultured and more priggish have given her the honorific "slut."
All of this, especially John Malkovich, is really funny. Malkovich has incredible comic timing and a killer deadpan that turns ordinary dialogue into wicked punch-line material. Malkovich's acting is perfect for the story and really matches Dan Clowes' sense of humor, which relies on taking ordinary situations and tilting them just a tiny bit until their underlying hypocrisy or stupidity becomes clear.
However, the rest of the cast rarely matches Malkovich in interpreting the material. Max Minghella, who plays Jerome, would be good in just about any other movie, but he seems too completely sincere here, and in a way that includes nothing ridiculous. In that, it's an amazing acting job, as he's completely immersed in the role. It's just wrong for this film.
Jim Broadbent, who plays a drunken, elderly alumnus of the art school, is too broad in his performance, as is Steve Buscemi as a coffee-shop/art-gallery owner.
Though to be fair, they don't ruin the film, and are fun in enough their way. If Art School Confidential was just a series of set-piece gags about the pathetic and deluded aspirations of the average art student, it would have been a great 45-minute sketch. Unfortunately, it tried to be a little more ambitious than the average Will Ferrell picture, and it fell down in including a plot.
There's a story about a series of murders on the art-school campus, with a set of suspects and a Shocking Twist that puts Jerome at the center of things. It's used to create a commentary about the way fame and notoriety are tied together, but that commentary has been made many times before, and better.
Although it does give Ethan Suplee a chance to shine as Jerome's filmmaker roommate. Suplee, who's been showing his comic talents in the better-than-mediocre sitcom My Name Is Earl (I give it an Optimus Prime/Sweet Potato), is really freakish in the role, and he perfectly captures the everyday horror that is Clowes' trademark. He dresses and acts like a college kid, though he's clearly in his 30s, and he's making the same film that every clueless first-time filmmaker makes: a slasher flick.
Suplee's amorphous body and weird diction seem to have come right off a comic-book page, and of course, Clowes is among the two or three best writers in comics (not the superhero kind; the cool kind). I think Art School Confidential would have worked as one of Clowes comics; his recent Ice Haven book has a similar crime-mystery structure, and it's great. But in the comics, Clowes can control every aspect of what's seen, including the acting. In the film, he and director Terry Zwigoff have to work collaboratively with the performers, and they didn't quite capture what it is that makes Clowes comics so cold, funny and disconcerting.