Ghost World (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Ghost World could easily be considered an "anti-Hollywood coming of age story". Although it follows the contours of the genre, the path is different enough to make the movie seem fresh, non-formulaic, and occasionally surprising. Of course, for some viewers, this will represent a down side, since, by choosing not to play by the "rules", Ghost World is not constrained by the necessity to have a happy, unambiguous ending that wraps everything up into a neat little package. Personally, I like open-ended movies - they have more of a "real life" feeling to them - but I recognize that some people can't stand them (at a screening I attended of John Sayles' Limbo - arguably the most open-ended film of all time - distressed audience members threw things at the screen when the closing credits began to roll). Those who are unhappy with open-to-interpretation conclusions may feel cheated by Ghost World.

The film is based on the comic book of the same name, which was devised by Daniel Clowes. Having never read the comic, I can't comment on the film's faithfulness to it, except to indicate that Clowes was involved in the production. In addition to co-writing the screenplay, he was available to help director Terry Zwigoff in a consultant capacity. Supposedly, the comic book is dark, and, if that's the case, the tone has carried over to the movie. Ghost World is being marketed as a comedy. While that's technically correct, it should be noted that this is a bleak comedy. There are laughs to be had, to be sure, but this isn't a non-stop train of gags and jokes. It's often pretty grim, venturing into the same territory occupied by Todd Solondz's films, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness.

The movie opens at a high school graduation. Best friends Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are preparing to venture into the "real world" together. They intend to get jobs, then rent an apartment together. College isn't in the cards for either of them. However, despite being inseparable during high school, Enid and Rebecca begin to drift apart as their maturing life goals take them in different directions. Rebecca is embracing conventionality - a steady job (at Starbuck's), a "regular" apartment, and plans for the future. Enid, on the other hand, is wandering aimlessly, entering into a semi-romantic relationship with a much older, timid jazz-lover, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), failing to hold down a job for more than a day, taking art classes, and continuing to live in her father's house. The more the rift between Enid and Rebecca widens, the less likely it is that they will be able to bridge it.

Although the film boasts a plot that does not rely on clich├ęs and standard plot devices, the real strength of Ghost World are the characters. We become involved in the story because we care about what happens with them. Enid in particular, who has the most screen time, develops into a well-rounded individual. She has her rough edges (she's not the easiest person to get along with), but it doesn't take long for us to be rooting for her. Credit goes to Thora Birch, playing her first effectively developed role since American Beauty (I'll forgive her for Dungeons and Dragons). In portraying Enid, Birch weds quirkiness with an underlying sense of melancholy and ennui. And she gets to wear a wide variety of interesting and colorful costumes.

Scarlett Johansson, the young actress from Manny and Lo and The Horse Whisperer, provides an appealing Rebecca, although her role is a little underwritten (especially in comparison with Birch's). Meanwhile, indie favorite Steve Buscemi has the opportunity to play a kind of part he is rarely accorded - a romantic lead. Of course, Seymour doesn't represent the typical male half of a romantic pairing - he's emotionally withdrawn, painfully shy, and inexperienced with women - in short, a traditional dork. Seymour's relationship with Enid represents a non-traditional May/December pairing, although the manner in which their interaction is handled rings truer than that between Leelee Sobieski and Albert Brooks in My First Mister.

I can't say whether fans of the Ghost World comic book will like the movie, but I did. It's a refreshing change from the usual summer fare, offering interesting characters, smart dialogue, biting satire (the concept of "high art" gets shredded), and dark comedy. Zwigoff, who brought us the brilliant portrait of cartoonist R. Crumb in the documentary Crumb, clearly feels at home in this territory (which abuts plots of land occupied by Solondz, David Lynch, and the Coen Brothers). Ghost World accomplishes what it intended to do, and stands out amidst the banality of August releases.

Ghost World (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2001-08-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1