Anyone who has waited for a comic book to be released to movie theaters knows
the deep disappointment that invariably comes with the film adaptation. Situations
get changed, history gets shuffled, characters become compacted or diluted;
all for the sake of making a mainstream hit. We seem to be in an age, though,
where comics are being taken seriously enough that the movies are becoming less
watered-down, more true to the source material, as though perhaps Hollywood
is finally letting them be what they really are.
It doesn't hurt, of course, when the comic creator is also the screenwriter,
as is the case with Daniel Clowes' Ghost World. Based on the comic
of the same name, the film is true to the book, most notably in tone. Granted,
the material is much more screen-ready, aimed at intelligent adults rather than
fifteen-year-old kids, but given the history of comics-to-film, it's a wonder
that it worked. Unfortunately, the movie was released to limited markets in
the midst of a summer full of Hollywood crap, and so went unseen by most audiences.
That's the damnedest shame of all, because this is easily one of the best movies
Ghost World is the story of two friends, Enid (Thora Birch) and
Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) who have just finished high school -- only, Enid
hasn't really finished, as she finds out at graduation that she will have to
spend the summer taking a remedial art class. Enid and Rebecca are both outsiders,
looking down on all the normal people around them; it defines the bond between
the girls. A practical joke brings Seymour (Steve Buscemi at his absolute best)
into the picture, and so begins the divide between the two friends. To say any
more about the story is to risk ruining the magic of the movie, which lies so
much in getting caught up in the ride. Anyone who has lived through the summer
after high school will probably recognize most of what's coming -- especially
those of us that grew up on the 'outside' -- but that's a big part of the feelings
of connection that are one of the screenplay's strengths.
Terry Zwigoff, who also directed 1994's excellent Crumb and co-wrote
the screenplay with Clowes, does a great job of directing the picture. The pacing
is masterful, and there is no one thing about the film that draws too much attention
to itself. Rather than directing the picture, it seems that Zwigoff allowed
it to flow on its own, and with a picture like this, that's an essential choice.
Birch's presence invites comparisons to her previous work in American
Beauty, and the similarities are strong good ways. Both films are confident
and provocative examinations of life with no real beginning or end, outside
of where the film starts and stops, but satisfying nonetheless. Like Sam Mendes,
Clowes and Zwigoff present extraordinary characters who nonetheless seem perfectly
ordinary and sympathetic, no matter how odd the situations might get. There
are no weak performances in either film, and both are technically sound in the
crafting of the film, aurally and visually.
Though Birch gets the most screen time (and the movie is really about her and
her search for herself), Steve Buscemi is the real highlight of the film. While
he normally plays eccentric oddballs who would seem downright creepy in a dark
alley, here he is a normal if slightly lost guy, looking for the same thing
that everyone else is: meaning. He plays a geeky record collector who can't
relate to most of humanity, but his performance is chillingly human -- a remarkable
accomplishment given his resume.
The movie is not a Hollywood picture. There are no easy answers, no firm resolutions
to be had. Instead, Clowes and Zwigoff offer a slice of life that shows the
normalcy of feeling (and being) different, and of feeling more than a little
lost. This is a coming-of-age movie in the truest sense -- even in the end,
age still hasn't come, much like reality.
The only flaw with this movie is the relatively empty DVD release. For the
movie itself, the disc is flawless; the picture transfer is gorgeous, retaining
a fantastic look with vibrant color. The audio, too, is up to par, with the
standard Dolby 5.1 and optional subtitles. What's missing, though, are the extras
that have become commonplace with DVDs; aside from a music video, a short making-of
featurette, and a scant four alternate and deleted scenes, there is no bonus
material. A simple commentary by Clowes and Zwigoff would have more than sufficed,
but even that common feature is missing.
Regardless of what the DVD is missing, the film is a must see, and not just
once. There are things that you won't pick up on the first or even fourth viewing,
and it deserves to be watched at least that often. Whether you purchase the
DVD or videotape or convince your local theater to show it one more time, Ghost
World demands you attention. There are few movies from the past year
that even compare, and even fewer adaptations from comics.