If the names of director Terry Zwigoff and screenwriter Daniel Clowes weren't prominently credited on "Art School Confidential," this melancholy comedy might be mistaken for an inferior imitation of their "Ghost World." The thematic and tonal overlap between the two films is considerable, and this second collaboration is entirely true to the idiosyncratic spirit of that earlier work.

If the names of director Terry Zwigoff and screenwriter Daniel Clowes weren’t prominently credited on “Art School Confidential,” this melancholy comedy might be mistaken for an inferior imitation of their “Ghost World.” The thematic and tonal overlap between the two films is considerable, and this second collaboration is entirely true to the idiosyncratic spirit of that earlier work. But despite a soulful leading performance from Max Minghella, pic feels insubstantial, echoing without equaling both the coolly ironic edge and heart of “Ghost World” and the incisive art-world outsider portrait of the director’s docu feature, “Crumb.” Breakout beyond specialized niches appears doubtful.

One of the final projects from the United Artists stable, inherited by Sony Classics, the film is not without wry hipster humor and moments of poignancy, but it seems legitimate to have expected more from this team. Pic’s most admirable quality is its coherence with the prevailing concerns of Zwigoff’s distinctive body of work. But while it again looks at how offbeat personalities fit into a blinkered mainstream culture that tends to marginalize original voices, it adds few fresh nuances to that theme.

Like “Ghost World,” “Art School” was adapted from artist-writer Clowes’ cult comic strip and produced by John Malkovich’s Mr. Mudd outfit. The film similarly adopts an unembellished, straightforward visual style with leisurely, unobtrusive camera movement (courtesy of d.p. Jamie Anderson) and a sharp eye for color.

In the terrific kickoff reel, Jerome Platz (Minghella) reveals his desire to emulate his idol, Picasso, and become the greatest artist of the 21st century. Anxiously emerging from the hell of being a high school bully target and invisible to girls, he flees his suburban home for an East Coast art school, where transformation, he imagines, is just a brushstroke away. To the jaunty sounds of a brass band, the title sequence observes the arrival of the stoners, geeks and boho freaks who are Jerome’s fellow freshmen.

While it’s busy defining the many amusing types that populate the campus and observing Jerome’s perplexed navigation of this new world, the comedy is on sound enough footing in its appealing, low-key way. But when it attempts to develop more concrete narrative strands, it stalls.

One central weakness is the failure to make a spate of serial killings around the campus into a real threat, or the killer’s identity much of a mystery.

Another is the unsatisfactory treatment of Jerome’s love interest, Audrey (Sophia Myles), an artist’s model with a skeptical view of the pretentious art scene. While she seems to respond to Jerome on an impromptu date, Audrey quickly loses interest in favor of Jonah (Matt Keeslar), a preppy jock. While Jerome dismisses Jonah as an artistic zero, Audrey’s infatuation with him makes her instantly a less interesting character.

Well into the proceedings, Clowes’ screenplay appears finally to decide what it wants to be about — the modishness and hypocrisy of the art world and the questionable value of study and schooling as an avenue to artistic self-expression. Having failed to impress (either as an artist or as would-be boyfriend to Audrey) through genuine talent and sensitivity, Jerome embarks on a fraudulent course. He imitates Jonah’s primitive style, and when that doesn’t work, he appropriates the morbidly violent work of booze-sodden failed artist Jimmy (Jim Broadbent) as his own.

Ultimately, Jerome’s quest to get the girl, his search for an authentic voice and his embrace of opportunism — not to mention the hunt for the killer and the unmasking of an undercover cop on campus — all feel insufficiently robust to carry the film. What’s left is a fragile sorta-romantic, sorta-rites-of-passage, sorta-art-world-critique comedy full of pleasing moments but short on overall satisfaction, shape or focus.

There are a number of enjoyable turns, particularly from Malkovich as a slimy, self-absorbed teacher; and from Joel David Moore as a wise-ass student. Anjelica Huston oozes poise and world-weary wisdom in a nicely observed scene as a savvy professor, while Steve Buscemi appears unbilled as Broadway Bob, the self-important proprietor of a trendy artists’ eatery.

All maudlin bitterness and drunken animosity, Broadbent as always is a welcome, eccentric presence, but Jimmy’s scenes with Jerome play like an underdeveloped cover version of the more affecting Seymour-Enid relationship from “Ghost World.”

While Zwigoff and Clowes have a refreshingly oddball, cynical sensibility that will keep smart audiences amused, the chief element making “Art School” hang together is Minghella in his first lead role. Both disaffected and touchingly open to experience, his brooding, expressive face depicts a physically unprepossessing, flawed young man torn uneasily between the magnetic and repellant duality of a bogus world.

Art School Confidential

Production

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a United Artists presentation of a Mr. Mudd production. Produced by Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Russell Smith. Executive producer, Barbara A. Hall. Co-producer, Daniel Clowes. Directed by Terry Zwigoff. Screenplay, Daniel Clowes, based on his comic strip.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Jamie Anderson; editor, Robert Hoffman; music, David Kitay; production designer, Howard Cummings; art director, Peter Borck; set decorator, Barbara Munch; costume designer, Betsy Heimann; sound (DTS/Dolby Digital), Mark Weingarten; assistant director, Joe Camp III; casting, Cassandra Kulukundis. Reviewed at Sony screening room, New York, Jan. 5, 2006. (In Sundance Film Festival -- Premieres.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Jerome Platz - Max Minghella Audrey - Sophia Myles Professor Sandford - John Malkovich Jimmy - Jim Broadbent Jonah - Matt Keeslar Vince - Ethan Suplee Sophie - Anjelica Huston Bardo - Joel David Moore
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