Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: "Ghost World" is Very Different and Very Good (Happy B'day, Scarlett Johansson)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 14 (of 2002) by Leroy Douresseaux

Ghost World (2001)
Running time: 111 minutes (1 hour, 51 minutes)
MPAA – R for strong language and some sexual content
DIRECTOR: Terry Zwigoff
WRITERS: Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes (based upon the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes)
PRODUCERS: Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, and Russell Smith
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Affonso Beato (D.o.P.)
EDITORS: Carole Kravetz-Aykanian and Michael R. Miller
Academy Award nominee


Starring: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban, and Stacey Travis

After graduating from high school, two friends watch as their relationship and plans change over the course of the following summer. Enid (Thora Birch, American Beauty) is disdainful of current pop culture and of conformity. Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) usually follows her friend’s lead, but she isn’t quite as critical of all things popular.

As the movie begins, both girls are aimless. They enjoy following people and spying on them and enjoying a laugh at the expense of others. However, Rebecca begins to gather herself, anxious to get on with her life. The girls had made plans to get an apartment together, and Rebecca soon has a job to pay for her adult expenses. Enid, on the other hands, lives day to day, aimless and chasing one infatuation after another.

She becomes attracted to the victim of one of her snide jokes, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a collector of obscure jazz and blues vinyl records. As her interest in Seymour’s live becomes deeper, Enid drifts from Rebecca. Rebecca, in turn, grows closer to her and Enid’s friend Josh (Brad Renfro), a convenience store clerk. When Seymour begins to date another woman and Enid’s Dad (Bob Balaban) invites his girlfriend to move in with him, Enid’s life begins to fall apart.

Directed by Terry Zwigoff, who directed the documentary on underground cartoonist and legend Robert Crumb, Crumb, Ghost World is a teen comedy for really, smart and intelligent people. Sans corny jokes, gross humor, and juvenile depictions of sex, Zwigoff relies on the acting talent of his cast, an excellent script, simple, evocative photography, and a unique soundtrack to tell his film story.

The script, co-written by Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes, is the tent pole that supports this film. The movie is based upon Clowes’s graphic novel, Ghost World, which was serialized in issues of Eightball, Clowes long-running comic book series published by Fantagraphics Books. Fantagraphics eventually published a very popular hardcover and soft cover editions of the collected story. Clowes expanded his original story and added elements from his other comic book stories for the screenplay.

The screenplay trusts the ability of the characters to portray their own dramas. Enid is a complex character. Although sympathetic and likeable, she is maddeningly stubborn. An iconoclast, she is determined to go her own way and have her own way. When she meets obstacles of which she cannot move, she stands her ground even at the cost of great mental duress to herself. Her intelligence and originality add some unexplainable quality to her physical appearance and makes her physically attractive. You can’t help but root for her. You wish the best for her, and you’re angry when she spites herself just to maintain one of her eclectic standards.

Seymour is painfully real. Unable to connect with people, he readily connects with objects and things, especially things from a bygone era – the good old days. He seemingly cannot help but love a golden age despite there being more rust than gild on the precious metal of his olden days. He and Enid develop a relationship that seems peculiar on the surface, but is in fact quite simple; they can meet each other half way even when at odds. In the end, it is outside interests that dictate the evolution of their friendship.

Ms. Birch’s performance as Enid is a revelation, while the overrated American Beauty only hinted at her talent. She totally buys into Zwigoff and Clowes’s script, wholly and completely creating Enid. Ms. Birch engages us; we get so into her character that we cannot help but love and care for Enid, when we might become bored with her eccentricities. Only the best performances demand that much attention and sympathy.

Ms. Johansson’s Rebecca is also quite good. In Enid’s shadow, she slowly emerges as her own woman, different and free of Enid’s belief system. Rebecca is the audience gone cold on Enid’s quirks, but still loving her; she mirrors our occasional impatience with Enid. Like Ms. Birch’s performance, Ms. Johansson’s performance has surprising depth from one so young, but she had good writing from which to work.

Seymour is one of Buscemi’s most human characters to date; as usual, his performance reveals how deep he understands the goals of the storytellers. Brad Renfro isn’t left behind. His Josh seethes boredom with existence. One look at him and you know that he wants to tell the world where to get off. He regards most anything and most anyone with a smoldering annoyance worthy of a classic screen rebel.

Ghost World can occasionally seem cold. The scriptwriters hope that we are patient during the dry moments as the story unfolds. The movie doesn’t only develop; it slow opens itself to us. We are simultaneously annoyed, angered, bored, confused, hopeful, joyous, and sad.

Confusing? No. Quite engaging, very thoughtful, some damn fine performances, and some really good character writing. Ghost World is a different and very good movie.

7 of 10

2002 Academy Awards: 1 nomination: “Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published” (Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff)

2002 Golden Globes: 2 nominations: “Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture” (Steve Buscemi), and “Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy” (Thora Birch)


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