Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The biggest 2001 surprise from the MGM Studio was this terrific, almost unclassifiable 'youth movie' about the summer adventures of a pair of disaffected high school graduates. Enid and Rebecca are split between idly criticizing the terminal gauche-ness of everything and everybody; or making an effort to some way fit into the unappetizing, demoralizing world around them. To a coot my age 1, the tentative, uneasy Ghost World brings back the vague unarticulated despair of Robert Crumb's Zap comics: people living unfulfilled lives of indefinite promise, muted passions, and disenchantment with the ugliness of the world and the ugliness of its values. (Whew!) This makes perfect sense, coming from the director of a docu on Robert Crumb, and a writer adapting his own comic series with roots that lead straight to the late '60s underground maestro. As a comedy, Ghost World is laugh-out-loud funny, maintaining the subtle tone that makes sense of Enid and Rebecca's twisted world. It's Savant's favorite picture of 2001.
Enid (Thora Birch of American Beauty) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johannsson of The Man Who Wasn't There) graduate from High School with a thinly disguised contempt for everyone around them: simpy classmates, Enid's meek father (Bob Balaban), the hip guys who trash their I-refuse-to-be-stylish style of dress. Forced to take a summer art class to get her diploma, Enid must suffer the insults of ditzy art instructor Roberta (Illeana Douglas), who slights her work because it lacks the right social context. Rebecca gets a menial job, determined to move into an apartment of her own, but Enid's inability to take things seriously keeps her unemployed and unhappy. She drifts into a friendship with record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a Robert Crumb -- like loner whose interests and lack of social skills marginalize him as a fatalist when it comes to women. At first attracted by his sheer awkwardness, Enid recognizes the qualities of a fellow nonconformist, and takes on Seymour as a Cupid project: she'll find him a woman, because she doesn't want to live in a world where a nice guy like him can't get a date."
Ghost World accomplishes several magic acts at once. It creates a convincing world of strip malls and soulless consumerism (our world) without being unduly crass or obvious. Into this landscape it places two very recognizable teens: they're neither trendy nor overly attractive, and allergic to any form of social conformism. Finally, without resort to sentimental means, it allows us to care about them, while they recognize that they need to care about each other and other people too.
Graduation for Enid and Rebecca is an escape from Zombie Land, into a 'ghost world' of meaningless stores and fast food outlets. The only self-expression that comes to mind (beyond Enid's diary-like cartoon drawings) is to play evil pranks on losers, in order to feel superior. One such prank backfires and brings Seymour into their lives, causing a jealous rift, but opening Enid's mind to the possibility of a worthwhile human existence beyond herself. 2
That Enid should be alienated from her world is obvious, given the colorful (but by no means exaggerated) freaks that hang out at the coffee shop and the 7-11. Nothing is off limits; even the local adult bookstore is just another freak show with fools to be jeered at. Seymour's similar disenchantment, and the power of his blues records, gives Enid the idea that there maybe are things worth exploring that she's unaware of.
Thora Birch reportedly gained weight to better resemble the heroine of Daniel Clowes original comic. She and Scarlett Johannsson create characters we haven't seen before - purposely dorky, awkwardly 'cool', they're immediately endearing. Steve Buscemi finally has a role that brings out all his talent as the loveable, nerdy Seymour, a guy who has no interest in what he wears or how he looks, and is convinced he'll never attract anyone. He makes an excellent stab at normalcy with the sincere Dana (Stacey Travis), but we know he'll blow it in the end. In this case, he has the help of an often thoughtless and barely-stable 18 year-old Enid.
Big credit needs to be given Clowes and Zwigoff, as their humanistic attitude doesn't victimize straight characters like Dana or Enid's dad, by making them hateful caricatures. Dana is just the kind of supportive & cheerful beacon who could help Seymour construct a better self-image. Even the thoughtless art teacher is an innocent victim of p.c. thinking, who sincerely does her best to help Enid.
Much is made of the teenage Retreat to The Room. In Enid's case she lolls around among her significant things, wondering if she's ready to go out into the real world -- note the World of Henry Orient poster on her wall, a film about the girlish problems of an era far removed from this one. Of course, Enid makes mistakes, and by chance finds herself alone, having momentarily alienated Rebecca, and facing a life with a stepmom (Teri Garr) she fears and loathes. When she reaches out to Seymour, it's in an adult context, which of course messes up everything, mostly for poor Seymour.
Ghost World gets all the details right with merciless accuracy. From the fast food blandness to the grating hostility of most young adults, even to the mangled mess of pop music on view, the marksmanship is excellent. Graduation is marred by awful rap music. Seymour's beloved blues guitarist is shoved aside by a band called 'Blueshammer.' In this commercialized stew of mediocrity, a sensitive ear can be carried away by one of Seymour's old 78-rpm records. Any alternative to the sameness is to be cherished, as with the Indian Bollywood musical number that Enid rocks out to in the film's opening. She's desperate for anything with a subversive or a foreign streak. When she puts on a rubber batgirl mask, it makes no difference to Enid that she's wearing what would be commonly identified as an adult sex accessory. She's so desperate for her own individual identity in this ghost world of sameness that she'll try anything.
Savant fell in love with these characters, who encompass qualities I only now recognize in young women I knew way back wh ... you know. Of course it's very funny, but surprisingly, this is a very human and compassionate story, a great movie all around.
MGM's DVD of Ghost World can boast a punchy, rich anamorphic transfer that brings out the rich color schemes of Affonso Beato's great photography, which re-interprets Los Angeles anew. We see little more than the mini-malls and other ugly street scenes - one depressing mini-mall with a Radio Shack in it, is about three blocks from Savant's home.
For extras, we get a featurette where the director and writer talk about their creation, and the very thoughtful reactions of the lead stars - kids who come off as very young, and very bright. I hope Ms. Birch has had no trouble peeling off those extra pounds she gained.
A selection of deleted and alternate scenes are mosty dull and uninvolving, but the special features page has a killer selection, one worth buying the disc for: the uncut (6 minute!) musical number from the beginning of the film. It's from a 1965 Indian picture called
Gumnaam, a rockin' song called "Jaan Pehechaan Ho."
If you haven't seen its use in the titles of Ghost World, you won't believe your eyes. Uncut in 'music
video' form, it's even more unbelievable. The weird choreography is Shindig Meets Busby Berkeley: a female lead in a golden dress shimmies and jerks frenetically, surrounded by a pack of thin male dancers, all with bandit masks. The energy expended in the silly dancing is enough to raise the roof - it's like 50 Beach Party dance numbers rolled together, only better. Not shown in the title sequence version are angles featuring the grinning lead singer, who looks like a demented John Waters. The only downside is that the number goes on a bit too long, with the music seemingly recycled... otherwise it's the party-play disc chapter of the year. I'm surprised the song didn't get radio air-play, it's so brain-numbingly infectious.
A nice trailer, which also makes good use of the Indian musical number, rounds out the few extras. Ghost World is a marvelous picture, and this is a terrific DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ghost World rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: music video version of Indian Musical number, omitted scenes, featurette, trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 31, 2002
1. Yes, dear readers, this week Savant turns FIFTY. No jokes about Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, please. All those offended by the idea of reading words written by an actual living fossil have my permission to (NOTE: message ended here -- ?)
2. The idea of bored teens using a dating service for malicious ends was the subject of another 'summer' movie, Last Summer from 1969, which marked debuts or very early work from Richard Thomas, Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davison and Catherine Burns. In that picture, the aimless teens bait a Latin American man as a fake 'date' for Hershey, and then murder him when the date gets out of hand. When Burns gets upset, her 'friends' rape her... It's a slightly different take on the same 'warped summer' idea.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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