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Ghost World   A

United Artists

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Writers: Daniel Clowes, Terry Zwigoff (based on the comic book by Clowes)
Cast: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Steve Buscemi, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Bob Balaban, Stacey Travis, Teri Garr.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

"I wanted to hug this movie," Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Ghost World. And I'll be damned if I didn't feel the same way. This is one of those movies that I didn't want to end because I almost couldn't bear to say goodbye to the characters. I guess you could say that Ghost World is a comedy, albeit a very bleak one at times, but simply labeling it as such is like referring to Casablanca as just a romance. While a few of its supporting characters are merely cartoonish gags (like the nunchuck dude who hangs out at the convenience store), its central characters are so well-drawn, honestly depicted, and gosh-darn lovable that, when the movie ends, it's kind of heart wrenching to let them go. And without the false assurance of a Hollywood happy ending. But that's one of the many reasons that Ghost World is one of the best films of the year. Or, hell, any year. Am I gushing a bit too much? Nah, didn't think so.

Fresh from high school graduation, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are two social misfits who are such good friends because they share a similar sardonic view of a world populated by the mindless drones that mainstream consumer culture has created. Most people don't know how to think for themselves anymore, happily eating whatever corporate America is shoving down their throats any given week without a second thought. Got your new pair of Nikes? What about that Big Mac? And you're gladly listening to whatever the popular radio stations are telling you is cool? Well, you just might belong to that 99 percent of humanity that Seymour (Steve Buscemi) says he can't relate to. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Now where was I?

Oh, yes. Enid and Rebecca. Let's start with Enid, since she's the central character here. Enid's so smart and different that it's only logical that most of the world doesn't understand her. It's just as well, though, because she doesn't really like the world or most of the people who inhabit it. Making witty and astute observations about other people is a way for her to feel a bit better about the depressing state of the world and the mindless conformity that surrounds her. When Rebecca claims that Enid hates every guy on the face of this earth, Enid says, "That's not true. I just hate all these extroverted, psuedo-bohemian losers."

Rebecca doesn't share exactly the same worldview as Enid, since she doesn't think it's quite as hopeless and disgusting. Rebecca is more "normal" than Enid in a conventional sense: she's conventionally prettier, nicer to people, and without the eccentricies that make Enid so misunderstood. And Rebecca is serious about getting on with her life after high school. She lands a job at a trendy coffee shop and starts looking for an apartment, while Enid doesn't seem concerned about getting a job or even all that thrilled about getting an place with her best friend anymore.

Although the friendship between Enid and Rebecca plays a central role in Ghost World, soon another relationship comes into play. One between Enid and a similarly jaded (and much older) guy named Seymour, who, of course, is perfectly played with just the right amount of self-loathing, wry humor, and hopelessness by the always-wonderful Steve Buscemi. Seymour is a collector of old 78 rmp records, mostly stuff in the jazz and blues vein, and he admits that being a collector has a lot to do with the fact that he can't relate to other people (99 percent of humanity, that is). While Rebecca doesn't understand why Enid quickly latches onto Seymour, Enid says, "He's such a clueless dork that he's kinda cool." That's soon after she meets him for the first time, when she realizes that he's the exact opposite of everything she hates.

I bet you think you have a good idea of the road that Ghost World will travel, since you've seen your share of comedic coming-of-age movies. In some instances, your predictions may not be too far off track, but I'd be willing to bet that this film will surprise you more often than not. In a way, it's comfortingly familiar and delightfully fresh and surprising at the same time, and it's never content with merely following the road most-traveled. It's much more playful and eccentric than that.

Ghost World is based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes. It was written by Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff. Zwigoff was the director of the acclaimed documentary Crumb, which was about a comic book artist. With its bright colors and even more colorful characters, Ghost World feels like a comic book. Even though this is Zwigoff's first fictional film and his first shot at directing actors, it seems like he's an old pro. He certainly knows how to get amazing performances out of his actors, but I guess it helps that the cast is excellent to begin with.

Thora Birch, great in American Beauty, pretty much runs the show here. With sharp comic timing and adorable wit and intelligence, her Enid is one of the most honest, funny, and touching portraits of a misfit teenager ever captured on celluloid. Scarlett Johansson is great as Rebecca, though her role is cast to the sidelines about halfway through the movie. It goes without saying that Steve Buscemi is terrific here, so I'll just quickly give nods to Brad Renfro and Illeana Douglas in their supporting roles. Honestly, this is a great cast filled with memorable characters, even if the nunchuck guy and the convenience store owner come off as amusing cartoons rather than real people.

They're marketing Ghost World as a black comedy. And, yeah, it's funny. Very funny. But it's not quite the wacky comedy that the upbeat trailer suggests. It's more than that. It defies simple classification, so I won't even attempt to pigeonhole it into any specific genre. That would be selling short this beautifully poignant, sharply funny, and unbelievably wonderful film. After seeing the film, a friend of mine said, "Well, that was depressing." And, yeah, I'm sure the ending will leave some people a bit bummed or confused, but I don't think that's quite what Zwigoff was going for. It's the most beautiful, haunting, hopeful, and magical ending I've seen in a long time. If I coulda hugged this movie, I would have.

Review published 08.22.2001.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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