Ghost World (2001)

D: Terry Zwigoff
S: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson

Enjoyable adaptation of Daniel Clowes comic book serial directed by Terry Zwigoff, best known for the documentary on cartoonist Robert Crumb from whom the tone of the film (and at least one original character) draws some inspiration. A pair of teenage girls (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) who have just graduated from high school face the oncoming challenge of adult responsibility with a decidedly jaundiced eye. Years of apathetic condescension have left them with fewer options than their newfound freedom might suggest. Birch finds herself drawn to weirdo record and memorabilia collector Steve Buscemi while Johansson subtly begins to grow away from her old friend as she realises that a person needs to move on to move up.

On some level, Ghost World is the film American Pie 2 might have been. It is about taking the next step after high school, about learning to see the world in a new light and responding to the new challenges with new attitudes. Like many films with this kind of subject matter, it is also primarily comic and often centrally concerned with sex and/or romance. It is an entirely different film though. It is more reflective and distant, making it a viewing experience which fans of the sex comedy revival will not appreciate.

The film explores the tension between letting go of the tried and tested means negotiating reality through condescension and irony and being attached to the idea that you are somehow the centre of a self-created world. Birch's character is the primary focus, slower to realise that life has changed. She begins to resent Johansson, seeing her as something of a sell out while also, in her quieter places, envying her friend's ability to do what she can not. In the end it comes to an ambiguous conclusion, uncertain as to whom among them has made the right choice and what consequences their choices will have.

The movie is at its best in the early scenes. Closest in form to the comic book and also demonstrating echoes of Zwigoff's experience in documentary, the film presents the world as seen by these particular individuals: a living rogue's gallery of assorted eccentrics and grotesqueries. It has a freewheeling, almost observational tone which one hesitates to call documentary but which certainly bears superficial stylistic resemblances with its methodology. The girls look on and giggle as they watch the moving wallpaper that is everyday reality for those they survey, participants only to the extent that they manipulate situations in order to observe the results. Life is one big interactive television programme, and one with content so lame that it is cool. The film records the process of their observation and presents the story in a very matter-of-fact manner.

Though the entire point of the film is to move beyond this and show how Birch especially comes to understand something about the real dynamics of human emotions (through her relationship with Buscemi), it is altogether more stylistically conventional in its latter two-thirds. The comic book has been very well shaped into more of a classic three-act drama by Clowes and Zwigoff, and it does retain some off-kilter, quasi-surreal elements. It settles into a fairly standard rites of passage mould though, only without the rewards of a warm and fuzzy catharsis to satisfy the punters. It feels more contrived than it needs to be but is still loose and goofy enough to keep it from pushing the standard buttons. It therefore falls somewhere between indie and mainstream, rewarding both to some extent but wholly pleasing neither.

Birch (American Beauty) is very impressive in the lead. The character is deadpan most of the time, but she succeeds in giving her just enough identifiable humanity to sneak character development through the literal and figurative masks she wears. Johansson (The Horse Whisperer) is less remarkable in support, largely because her part has been rewritten and reduced in prominence from the source. This skews the balance of the film, and it becomes especially notable in the latter stages that she has almost dropped out of the story after featuring so strongly in the early scenes. A similar fate has befallen Brad Renfro (Apt Pupil). His character, the secret object of both girls' affections in the comic, has been reduced a bit player in the film, leaving him little time and space to make an impression.

Buscemi (Con Air) meanwhile reaps the rewards of playing a character written especially for the film. He is something very close to a fictional stand-in for Robert Crumb on some level, a social misfit who seems to have made good. He still expresses his deep eccentricity through obsessions and frustrations including record collecting. Zwigoff has fun with this character, and brings the knowledge he gained of such characters in the making of Crumb to the satiric, analytical edge in this characterisation. Buscemi is aware of all the angles and delivers a sharply realised interpretation of all of the subtleties. Illeana Douglas (Stir of Echoes) has a pricelessly funny role as a summer school art teacher whose introductory scene gives the finger to pretentious film criticism. Bob Balaban and Terri Garr turn up in support and also give nice performances.

Ghost World is a fairly thoughtful, generally entertaining piece. It is reasonably close to its source, but it has lost something in translation. As a film it lacks the warm heart of the likes of Slums of Beverly Hills and is not as wacked-out as the likes of Slacker as a dip into the troubled heart of contemporary American counter-culture. It also sometimes faintly resembles The Opposite of Sex, not least of all in its central character's self-absorption and casual cruelty. It doesn't go quite as far as the latter film in terms of black comedy though, and its targets are softer, making it less effective on the whole. Where The Opposite of Sex tackled the complexities of contradictory emotions in a charged environment, Ghost World has a go at the consequences of consumer culture on today's youth. This comes with enough gags, put-downs, and one-liners to endear it to a particular target demographic of would-be disenfranchised teenagers (although the film of course points out that they are not so much outside of society as so deeply mired in its postmodernist excesses as not to be able to see it), but it does not provide it with enough edge to be truly incisive.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.