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With: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban, Teri Garr
Written by: Daniel Clowes, Terry Zwigoff, based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
MPAA Rating: R for strong language and some sexual content
Running Time: 111
Date: 06/16/2001

Ghost World (2001)

4 Stars (out of 4)

A 'World' Apart

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Critic Pauline Kael recently talked about "blowing her trumpets" when she founda film she really liked and how she misses that, now that she's retired. Well,get ready, 'cause I'm dusting off my own trumpets right now.

Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World is the best American film I've seen this year so far... not counting Memento, which shares both American and British origins.

Based on Daniel Clowes' comic book, the film captures the lives of two teenage girls in that pivotal summer after high school graduation and before real life. Thora Birch (American Beauty) plays the bespectacled plum-shaped Enid, and Scarlett Johansson (The Horse Whisperer) plays Rebecca, a blonde with a rugged slur for a voice. The two friends decide not to go to college just because everyone else is, and they spend their days finding irony in their everyday lives. They take great pleasure in following a couple of weird people that they insist are "Satanists," or in pointing out a pair of discarded pants on the sidewalk. ("Those pants are still there.")

While the comic book consists of unrelated episodes, Zwigoff and Clowes (who co-wrote the movie's screenplay) add a few driving forces. Rebecca hopes to find an apartment to begin her newly independent life, while Enid must take a summer art course in order to officially graduate. Enid keeps a scrapbook full of gorgeously personal art (provided by R. Crumb's 18-year-old daughter Sophie), but her teacher (Illeana Douglas) prefers art with a message to art with a heart.

Zwigoff and Clowes balloon one incidental character from the comic into a full- blown one. For a gag, the girls answer a "missed connection" ad in the paper and end up meeting the sad-sack Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a reclusive record collector who prefers the darkness and nostalgia of his room to real life.

Seymour is based more than just a little bit on Zwigoff himself (Seymour even has a collection of old 78s similar to Zwigoff's). And, though this might not sound possible, the film also resonates with quite a bit of that singular artistic force that made Zwigoff's 1995 documentary Crumb such a great achievement. We can easily tell that the same man made both films, and indeed that the films were made by a person and not a machine, as the rest of the American films this year seem to be.

Like a complex personality, Ghost World revels in its different faces, its different facets. It begins as a comedy, with many of Enid and Rebecca's observations stabbing heartily at our sense of irony. I laughed more at Ghost World than any of this year's straight comedies. But it's also a collection of found art, like the astonishing opening number, a clip from a 1965 Bollywood rock 'n' roll movie that really, truly wails. Or like the racial stereotype "Coon Chicken" ad Enid discovers in Seymour's collection and brings to her art class.

Most important, Ghost World accurately, painfully and brutally shows the way in which a longtime friendship can grow steadily, irreparably apart. If the film had just been a series of witty asides, it wouldn't have added up to much. But the glorious way it shows Enid and Rebecca slowly realizing that they no longer have anything in common blows away all the other phony "relationship" dramas of the past year. While Rebecca finds herself a job and dutifully begins looking at apartments, Enid becomes fascinated by Seymour and even develops a crush on him, then is blindsided when the actual "missed connection" woman calls him to make a date. At night, the two girls talk on the phone, discussing current events, but they no longer seem to be talking with each other.

Zwigoff also proves himself with a deliberate visual style that evokes the panels of a comic book (though the Ghost World comic was in black and white), as well as the industrial wasteland at the outskirts of any city: strip malls, porno shops and overall dingy, dirty cars, streets and people. It's a grim world, but Enid and Rebecca -- round, colorful figures in a gray and rectangular landscape -- are determined to find something worthwhile within it.

Space forbids me to play my trumpet any longer, but allow me to mention the fine performances by Bob Balaban as Enid's father and Teri Garr as her stepmother, as well as Brad Renfro as an aimless boy the girls love to hang out with and torment. And Zwigoff's selection of old blues tunes fills out the atmosphere just perfectly (a teen movie without 'NSync tunes sucking the life out of it). In the name of all that's beautiful and brilliant, do not miss this movie. See it now. No doubt it's too smart to stick around American multiplexes for very long.

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