Before I talk about Art School Confidential, I have to explain what I mean when I use the phrase "Fake Plot".
Most movie comedies are driven by gags and jokes. But gags and jokes alone do not make a story.
Now, in many of the greatest, most well-respected comedies, the gags and jokes are fully integrated into the story: the situation the characters are in fuels the gags, which in turn push the story along. When this is the case, I say that the comedy has a "Real Plot". Some examples of "Real Plot" comedies: Seven Chances, Bringing Up Baby, Passport to Pimlico, Some Like it Hot, Dick, The 40 Year Old Virgin.
However, in many other comedies, the gags do not necessarily have any relation to the actual plot. The story is essentially arbitrary: the gags would work just as well in any number of different situations. In these cases, I say that the movie has a "Fake Plot": there's a story and a three act structure, but the story and the structure seem to be there just because. My go to example of a "Fake Plot" comedy is Dumb and Dumber: there are a lot of great gags in the movie, but they really have nothing to do with the ostensible plot of the movie, which involves a kidnapping and some kind of financial real estate shenanigans or something. At least I think it does: even though I've seen Dumb and Dumber four or five times and I generally have a really good memory for this stuff, I really can't remember any of the story details.
"Fake Plot" isn't necessarily a bad thing. It doesn't ruin my enjoyment of Dumb and Dumber or Animal Crackers or It's a Gift, for example. But it can be a real burden on a comedy, sucking the life out of the gags, and it's usually a sign of a lack of inventiveness or plain old laziness on the part of the filmmakers.
Take Happy Gilmore, for instance. Now, it gets a lot of funny gags out of its one idea: Adam Sandler as a tantrum-throwing, goonish golfer. But the plot, which involves him trying to win enough money to save his grandmother's home, is really beneath contempt. It has nothing to do with any of the gags: its only function is to provide an essentially arbitrary motivation for Sandler's character. What is particularly bad is that the hackneyed grandmother plot was obviously chosen out of sheer laziness: it is simply the easiest choice the screenwriters could make. From my p.o.v., what makes Happy Gilmore guilty of pandering to the lowest common denominator is not its sophomoric gags (which are actually funny) but the fact that the filmmakers get away with putting so little thought into the movie's story.
"Fake Plots" show up a lot in vehicles for comedians like Sandler, Jim Carrey, Jerry Lewis, and the Marx Brothers, because it is a lot easier to simply tack on a bunch of gags to some kind of generic three-act storyline than to come up with a fully integrated comedy. (Jerry Lewis experimented with "No Plot" comedies - like The Bellboy - but I guess audiences really didn't go for that. Film snob that I am, I prefer "No Plot" to "Fake Plot" most of the time).
I should note at this point that my "Real Plot"/"Fake Plot" classifications are pretty casual and subjective. For me, making this distinction has been useful, but you shouldn't mistake this for some kind of big theory.
So what does this have to do with Art School Confidential?
Well, for much of the movie, Art School Confidential functions as an almost perfect, almost "No Plot" comedy. Dan Clowes, the movie's screenwriter, is not only one of the premier graphic novelists of the last twenty years, he's an accomplished gag cartoonist and it comes through here. The best bits in the movie are like nastier versions of New Yorker-style cartoons.
The gags bounce off each other and the movie meanders along rather nicely, more-or-less following an unobtrusive plotline involving the main character's attempt to woo a beautiful artists' model. It doesn't really build up any comic momentum, but I think that's okay for a movie of this type.
Then about 2/3rds of the way into the movie, all-of-a-sudden-like, a subplot about a serial killer takes over the movie. And it does so in a way that not only does not work, but also pretty much ruins the whole movie.
By bringing the serial killer storyline to the foreground, Dan Clowes and Terry Zwigoff have given Art School Confidential what is not exactly a "Fake Plot" but comes pretty close. It is meant to sum up the movie's take on the art world, operating on a larger scale than the individual gags, but it still seems tacked on and arbitrary for two major reasons:
Reason #1 is that the entire serial killer plot feels like it was cobbled together from bits and pieces of various storylines in Clowes's Eightball comic book. (I'm thinking specifically of "Gynecology", David Boring, and Ice Haven.)
Reason #2 follows from Reason #1: it isn't intrinsically a bad thing for Clowes to re-use his old material - especially in a different medium that has a larger audience. However, the way these stories work in Eightball, in terms of their tone and style, is at odds with Terry Zwigoff's sensibilities as a filmmaker.
I'm going to spoil the end of the movie now.
The ironic twist endings of Clowes's comics work because of his dispassionate, cold, almost clinical point-of-view towards his characters. It is apt that he references Sherwood Anderson in Ice Haven, which is perhaps his masterpiece, because he shares Anderson's skepticism towards humanity that borders on misanthropy. David Boring, my favorite of his longer works, gets a lot of its oomph by seducing us into identifying in some way with the title character and then pulling the rug out from under us with revelations that make us question our understanding of him: a single panel will suddenly up-end everything we thought we knew about the character.
But Zwigoff doesn't work that way. Like Clowes, he's an ironist, but he's not as clinical and distanced as Clowes is in his comics. He's not as harsh. And, working in film, where we respond to characters more directly than in comics, he's unable to pull off the p.o.v. bait-and-switch that drive stories like Ice Haven and David Boring.
We can't help but identify with Jerome, the protagonist of Art School Confidential, partly because we're meant to see the absurdities of the art world through his eyes and partly because he's played by an appealing actor in a low-key appealing way. Apart from a little bit of whininess and mopiness, there's nothing about the character that inspires anything but sympathy.
When Jerome is suddenly revealed as an awful, shallow, heartless, opportunistic, near-sociopathic cheat, the movie begins to fall apart.
Zwigoff is not as cold and calculating as Clowes and, as Jerome, Max Minghella is too genial, so instead of the kind of clear, dramatic, shocking reversals that we see in David Boring and Ice Haven we get something muddled and confused. It is not ambiguous: it's just not very clear.
I can imagine that this would work better with an actor who had a more hostile, confrontational persona (my friend Nick smartly suggested Jason Schwartzman would have been perfect for this role a few years ago). Also, I think Ryan Gosling, who's not only talented but has greater technical acting chops than anyone else in his age group, could have pulled off the shift from nice guy to borderline sociopath on his own. But while Minghella is perfectly fine, he doesn't know what to do with the character once this change in perspective occurs and Zwigoff is unable to give him any help.
There's a number of ironic twists in Clowes's screenplay that Zwigoff does not (or cannot) play up, so the movie gives off the impression that it doesn't quite understand its screenplay. For example, Jonah, a police officer pretending to be an artist, honestly attempts to make good paintings, even though we're meant to laugh at the limitations of his skills and sensibility and at the pompous art scenesters who take him seriously. On the other hand, Jerome, supposedly the "true" artist, passes off someone else's paintings as his own and is perfectly happy to continue this deception as long as it helps his career.
But Zwigoff never clarifies this distinction or even gives any suggestion that he sees it.
And it's confusing when Audrey, Jerome's love interest, who has been the most level-headed character in the movie, unambiguously accepts Jerome not only as a romantic partner but also as a great artist. Part of me thinks that Clowes means us to have the same kind of shift in perspective towards her that we did towards Jerome: she's not as perceptive and/or much more mercenary than we were led to believe.
Terry Zwigoff's film of Ghost World worked so well because Zwigoff was able to criticize the alienated, ironic sensibility of Clowes's graphic novel. To paraphrase film critic Charles Taylor, it's an ironic movie about the limits of irony. But the screenplay for Art School Confidential ends up being darker, more bitterly ironic, than Ghost World's, and Zwigoff's inability to get on its wavelength results in a kind of half-baked, play-acted misanthropy: too dark to enjoy as comedy and not nearly cutting enough to work as satire.