Movie review: ‘Ghost World’

Hello, cruel ‘World’: Two teen-age partners in gloom get their kicks by ridiculing everyone around them, with profound results

Aug. 24, 2001,  Austin American-Statesman

At the tender age of 18, Enid and Rebecca are sick of it all, self-exiles from the cultural barbarism of strip-mall America. It’s a teen thing. Drifting in the margins, ripping into the dull conformity, they perform catty vivisection on posers, vulgarians and tasteless consumerism. But their cynicism is a trap: Revolution is hard if you’re already defeated.

This is the mild predicament in which Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) find themselves in Terry Zwigoff’s funny, sad and peculiar “Ghost World,” one of the most engaging films of the year. Zwigoff, who made that anatomy of eccentricity “Crumb,” co-wrote the movie with Daniel Clowes, upon whose graphic novel “Ghost World” is based.

Fresh out of a high school they despise, the dyspeptic duo are free to clomp about their nameless city in chunky black boots, making ridicule a sport. Their bone-dry remarks aren’t terribly insightful (“Only stupid people have good relationships”) but their honesty is good for cathartic laughs. The girls torment minimart worker Josh (Brad Renfro), harass a couple they imagine are satanists and mock a waiter with false flattery.

The waiter’s locks, a 1980s Medusa perm, is one of many tragic hairdos assigned the film’s male losers. (An Afro, a mullet and a matted shag make shameful cameos.) The ‘dos render the boys dorky Others: insta-geeks. For Enid and Rebecca it’s more reason to hate everything. Who needs happiness, they seem to reason, when misanthropy is so much fun?

The fine actresses — Birch, darkly perfect as thrift-shop punk Enid, and Johansson, all zonked deadpan as Rebecca — allow the movie to achieve a kind of blank comic truth. Their savvy self-possession makes them an uncommon thing: teen-age characters you can take seriously.

Because, despite their studied disaffection, they are not numb. Indeed, they may feel too much. At the sight of a kindred outcast spirit — the school fat guy or a rule-breaking hick — Enid’s face softens in a flush of empathy. She reserves her enthusiasm for those who walk outside the lines swinging a bat. “That guy rules!” she says of a hell-raiser. When she walks into an adult book shop, she giggles, “Oh my god, look at all the creeps!” She has entered pariah paradise.

Enid’s aimless path gains focus when she meets a 40-ish oddball named Seymour (Steve Buscemi), an oily-haired schlump who collects vintage blues records in lieu of developing social skills. Buscemi’s poignant performance brings skittish life to Seymour; he’s in a constant state of recoil. Enid worships him for his total out-of-itness. “He’s such a clueless dork he’s almost cool,” she says, before her attachment gets complicated.

The film’s uninflected tone is one of minimalist despair. It’s as elusive as “Rushmore’s,” and like that melancholy comedy, it is partially shaped by what you bring to it.

“Ghost World” has a static energy that can be as listless as Enid’s will, as though the air has been sucked out of it. Zwigoff uses simple compositions that echo Clowes’ washed-out, one-dimensional comic panels. The film is more visually clever than it looks.

None of the counterfeit cheer that engines most teen comedies shows up here. There’s not a frictionless relationship in the film — everyone’s a drag on each other — and even Enid and Rebecca have their outs. The ending is worrisomely ambiguous.

It’s around the end that “Ghost World” falters. Unlike Rebecca, Enid doesn’t learn how to reconcile her temperament with society’s. She alienates the world and cries about it. But this isn’t so different from what most teen-agers do. Her despair is too callow to be tragic. And if she makes no effort to change, how can she be a failure?

The movie doesn’t quite know what to do with Enid, and Zwigoff plugs things up with a conclusion that is both unsatisfying and genuinely moving. “Ghost World” is fascinating like that.

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