Jerome (Max Minghella) has grown up in the suburbs as an unhappy and persecuted youth. Bullies take advantage of him regularly, and girls don't even notice him. He has a plan to show them all up: he intends to become "the greatest artist of the 21st century." Part of this achievement will be gaining the adoration of sexy women. In fact, he chooses to attend the Strathmore Institute because of the photo of a lovely nude arts model in the brochure. She is the woman of his dreams.
Once enrolled, Jerome meets his two roommates, an aspiring filmmaker (Ethan Suplee) and a fashion designer (Nick Swardson). In class, Bardo (Joel David Moore) gleefully runs though the art student types including the boring blowhard, the vegan, the angry lesbian, etc. Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich) deflates Jerome's high expectations by stating that only one out of a hundred will ever make a living as an artist. His own triangle paintings have proven too difficult for the public to appreciate and understand. In a private meeting with Jerome, the professor says that it took him 25 years to find his own distinctive style.
This oddball comedy has been written by Daniel Clowes and directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb and Ghost World). They are out to lampoon the pretensions and absurdities of the art world, from schools to trends to galleries. In one of the goofiest scenes, a pompous and arrogant student from Strathmore who has achieved success as an artist says that nothing can be learned in school, everything depends on innate talent. He ridicules the students for their earnest questions at a gathering and then makes fun of his professors.
Jerome again finds himself the loner until Audrey (Sophia Myles), the blonde woman of his dreams, shows up to model nude for his class. During a break, she looks at his sketch of her but he is too flustered to say anything and before he knows it, she has vanished. Eventually, after several embarrassing and irritating dates with girls, Jerome goes out with Audrey and learns that her father is an artist and that she knows everyone in town. However, his ire is aroused when she becomes romantically involved with Jonah (Matt Keeslar), a handsome art student whose simplistic drawings have elicited the praise of everyone in the class. This drives Jerome into a self-destructive phrase that is nurtured by Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), an alcoholic and burnt-out local artist who has nothing but scorn for the so-called creative community.
Art School Confidential swerves off-course with too many subplots near the end but is carried by Max Minghella's intense performance as Jerome the dreamer. This virgin maintains his love for Audrey and is willing to do almost anything to prove himself to her. Meanwhile, his campaign to become the best artist in his class backfires since his peers sense his neediness and refuse to give him praise.
This film convincingly portrays the pain and the rejection that inevitably come when we rely upon others to bolster our own self-esteem. Clowes and Zwigoff present one jab after another at what passes for art in our time and in the surprising finale show how tawdry and morally bankrupt success really is in this glittery world.