As the opening credits flash on the screen, Ghost World is already hurtling forward, appropriating a brassy Bollywood tune and setting Thora Birch to dancing. Her shimmying interpretation of the choreographed Hindi number she’s watching on TV is simultaneously smug and exuberant – this girl carries herself with the cocky adolescent air of a kid who knows what’s cool.
Birch plays Enid Coleslaw (an anagram of Daniel Clowes, upon whose comic books Ghost World is based), a pretty teenager with bobbed hair and acid tongue. With her like-minded friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), she walks recognizably Los Angeleno streets spewing hilarious venom at the hallmarks of local culture.
Neither urban or suburban, this is a vision of the outskirts, littered with billboards and logos and lit by a constant TV-blue glow from the windows overhead. As a comic book, each page of Ghost World bore the eerily recognizable patina of everyday life, but the movie is a little more candy-colored (it’s shot by Almodóvar compadre Affonso Beato, surely an inspired matching of sensibility to material). Furthermore, director and co-writer Terry Zwigoff pulled a major narrative trick in the adaptation process by turning an incidental character from the book into a linchpin of the film. Rather than exerting a dilutive impact on the story, these changes help focus it and give it shape. On-screen, Ghost World has a playfulness and even a barely-there sense of world-weary optimism that’s missing from Clowes’ original work.
Hand a big part of the credit to Birch, who turns in a deliciously catty performance that pays tribute to both the natural brattiness and the innate melancholy of youth. Essentially, Enid is put off by common kitsch but finds herself fascinated in spite of herself by otherness. Her put-downs of gauche middle-American culture are simultaneously withering and plaintive. On the one hand, they establish her hip credentials as an outsider who’s too hip for her particular burg. On the other, they reinforce her feelings of stasis, trapped as a sophisticate savant among idiots.
She professes revulsion, for example, at the opening of a 50s theme diner, but winds up reveling in it anyway, dubbing the waiter “Weird Al” and trolling for losers. One of the patrons of the diner is Seymour (Steve Buscemi), an awkward middle-aged guy whom she holds in contempt but winds up befriending anyway, partly out of an affinity for a recording of Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman” that she purchases at Seymour’s garage sale (after following him home). And so it goes.
Enid’s sensibilities are fairly retro — not just the haircut and the eyeglasses, but her cultural affinities. She digs Indian musicals and blues music. Her bedroom is littered with vinyl records and a poster for The World of Henry Orient. Contemporary pop culture leaves her casually disinterested- — she loses her job as a movie theater concession girl after one day for attacking not just the movies, but the yellow grease that goes on the popcorn. By contrast, the similarly acid Rebecca settles comfortably into an unfulfilling job at a corporate coffee bar, suggesting the compromise that comes with assimilation into the adult world.
But, like Peter Pan, Enid aims never to grow up, at least not inasmuch as becoming an adult means surrendering to mediocrity and groupthink. She tosses a firecracker into the summer art class she’s been forced to take by submitting an old, racist advertisement for a fried-chicken stand as her project. She’s brought up short only when she’s surprised by her own feelings: when she begins to feel closer then ever to Seymour, whose banality and idiosyncracy has made him her hero, and when she notices that, through no apparent fault of her own, she and her best pal Rebecca have drifted slowly but inexorably apart. Eventually, the question becomes whether Enid will learn to live the unexamined, workaday life that she so abhors, or if she’ll manage to find a graceful exit from her increasingly offensive surroundings-the titular ghost world.
Zwigoff’s previous film was Crumb, the documentary about American cartoonist and underground icon R. Crumb, which makes this his second picture in a row inspired by the work of revered weirdos. And if “Enid Coleslaw” with her sketchpad is the Clowes surrogate, Zwigoff has admitted that record collector Seymour is a reflection of his own place in the world. (Crumb himself remarked wryly to The New Yorker that the record collector who gets laid by the beautiful teenager must be a Zwigoff fantasy.) Inasmuch as it’s a movie about growing up alienated in America, Ghost World makes an interesting follow-up to Crumb.
The closest equivalent to this in recent American film has to be the work of Todd Solondz, director of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. (Clowes was even drafted to create the poster art for the latter picture.) Solondz is often attacked on the grounds of cruelty, a charge I don’t really agree with – I find his films to reveal some degree of sympathy for those characters, even if he does tear the figurative legs off of them and stick them squirming under the microscope. Time will tell how Zwigoff’s films compare to Solondz’s; I think Ghost World is better than Dollhouse and not quite as good as Happiness, but set me down with all three of them in another five years and I may well feel differently. What Zwigoff manages to do is to set his film in roughly the same milieu as Solondz — that is, the search for happiness (or at least “happiness”) amid the rubble of a crumbling cultural landscape – without the film itself being a major bummer. I guess Ghost World is the West Coast equivalent of Solondz’s New York/New Jersey-set opuses.
That I’ve written such purple prose in praise of this film does not mean it’s a stuffy think piece. On the contrary, it is brash, witty and inviting entertainment with lots of visual gags and crackling dialogue that made me cackle. I dock it a notch for taking potshots at familiar targets — the politically correct art teacher is played by Illeana Douglas in fish-in-barrel mode — and for a slightly overextended denouement. But Ghost World is the funniest, saddest, most astute movie of the year so far. Rarely has adolescent ennui been so rewarding.