Ghost World

Hollywood, in its ceaseless search for material to bend to its own will, has looked to comic strips and comic books practically since its infancy. Trouble is — especially lately — they look at the wrong comics. While Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Ang Lee’s Hulk might be fun, most comic-book adaptations are closer to the ineptitude of Batman Forever than to the clear-eyed vision of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. (Even Miller’s own sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, is like an oafish P. Diddy remix of its predecessor.) Hollywood sees shallow heroism and the potential for hollow spectacle in superhero stories; anything featuring actual human beings doesn’t appear on the radar.

The closest thing in Ghost World to an action sequence is a brief, fumbling scuffle between a nunchuck-wielding doofus and a scrawny record collector, and its source material — Daniel Clowes’ brilliant 1996-7 serial comic — didn’t even have that. Ghost World is the sort of “indie comic” few people besides serious comics readers have even heard of, and the movie version got similarly overlooked, when most of America was busy with Rush Hour 2 and Planet of the Apes. It centers on two teenage girls, Enid and Rebecca, right after high-school graduation; its subject is that awkward, often painful transitional period between high school and whatever else (college, job), and how friendships forged in adolescence sometimes don’t survive the transition.

The movie, directed by Terry Zwigoff (who made 1995’s amazing documentary Crumb) from a script he wrote with Clowes, doesn’t focus as much on the Enid-Rebecca relationship as the comic did. Instead, they have fleshed out a character seen for only a few panels in the comic — Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a lonely, acerbic blues collector (much like the director himself) — and nudged the equally acerbic Enid (Thora Birch) into an odd and tentative friendship with him, while Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) grows up and apart from Enid, pursuing things like a job and an apartment half-heartedly, because it’s what you do after graduation.

Enid worships kitsch and outmoded pop — anything that isn’t mass-produced and mass-embraced. Thora Birch’s performance snaps into focus the moment Enid steps out of her bathroom and stops in her tracks upon hearing the dusty old blues number “Devil Got My Woman.” This song, finally, is something for Enid to be passionate about — the real thing. Birch is certainly amusing in her earlier, sneering moments, but it’s nothing she and others haven’t done before; but after Enid learns to appreciate that blues record as art and emotion, not as something to be ironically cherished because it’s “so bad it’s almost good,” Birch deepens into something like maturity. Her scenes with Steve Buscemi — whose Seymour, despite a couple of Buscemi-esque outbursts, is perhaps his gentlest and most honorable creation — are so delicately written and played that we almost don’t even miss Rebecca. (The deep-voiced Scarlett Johansson is fine as the rather dispassionate realist Rebecca, but the movie doesn’t develop Rebecca in much detail; her drift towards “responsible adulthood” takes place mostly offscreen. There’s a suggestion of a relationship between her and one of the girls’ favorite stooges, a mild clerk played with Cusackian befuddlement by Brad Renfro, but the movie has eyes only for Enid and Seymour. I’d complain more about that if there were anything in Birch’s and Buscemi’s scenes to complain about.)

Ghost World is something of an ode to arrested development. It just about fetishes the womblike clutter of Enid’s and Seymour’s bedrooms, festooned with the sort of “cool things that only I like” decor that indicates few visits from outsiders. At the same time, its vision of the characters’ universe — a plasticized sprawl of mini-malls and convenience stores, a ghost of the individualized town it might once have been — is fairly depressing. What to do in this ghost world? Buy into it like Rebecca (who displays an unhealthy respect for dull plastic cups and fold-out ironing boards), buy into it halfway like Seymour (who has a corporate job but nurtures his non-mainstream fixations), or reject it like Enid (whose response to Rebecca’s request to act like a presentable, mature apartment-seeker is to dye her hair green)?

I can imagine Ghost World directed by John Waters and starring Christina Ricci as Enid — it’s exactly the kind of role she might’ve taken a few years ago — but I doubt it would’ve had this mixture of hipster bemusement and postmodern melancholy. Much of the dialogue is verbatim from Clowes, who has an uncanny ear for how smart, sarcastic teenage girls talk, and Zwigoff brings his own acid to the table — a lot of the movie works as snide commentary on video stores, megaplexes, art-school pretensions, or theme-period diners (the film’s ’50s-theme eatery Wowsville violates its own reality with raucous hip-hop oozing out of the jukeboxes). All of this from a comic book — and not the usual comic book you see in theaters. Clowes’ Ghost World is a great short novel told in words and pictures; the movie he and Zwigoff have made from it is a great comedy-drama that doesn’t look or feel remotely like a “comic-book movie.” If more people appreciated stories like this, movies and comic books would be better off.

Explore posts in the same categories: comedy, comic-book, cult, one of the year's best

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