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Ghost World
Reviewed by Daniel Clowes (writer), Terry Zwigoff (director), ©

Format: Movie
Released:   DVD Release: February 5, 2002
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

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 of 2001.

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.


Kenn McCracken is comics editor for RevolutionSF.

 
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