Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Here It Is, Scarlett Johansson Proves Her Worth In Ghost World!

The Good: Decent acting, characters, mood, pacing
The Bad: Utter lack of a plot
The Basics: Understated and quietly rebellious, Ghost World presents two intelligent, though disaffected social outcasts trying to find their way after high school.

Scarlett Johansson, like Kirsten Dunst before I saw Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (reviewed here!), is an actress I've seen in a lot of movies but has never once impressed me. I can see - physically - her appeal, but I've never seen a performance from her that utilized any genuine acting talent. In short, I've seen her in many things without being able to justify her presence in so many movies. Following one of my reviews, a comment was left encouraging me to give Johansson another chance and the person leaving the comment listed several movies (many of which I had already seen and been underwhelmed by Johansson's performance in) with Johansson and I was surprised to see Ghost World on the list. Ghost World has been on my list for years. So, I picked it up and after watching it, I'm pleased to say I get how Johansson was put in so many other movies; directors saw her in this and were impressed. Johansson's performance in Ghost World bought her a career. I get it.

Enid and Rebecca are social outcasts who have just graduated high school (more or less) and find themselves without direction with the rest of their lives ahead of them. They harass a local boy, Josh, and hang out complaining about just about everyone they see. Enid stumbles upon a middle aged man who is socially awkward and she develops a relationship with Seymour, the record collector. Enid and Rebecca begin to move in different directions as Rebecca becomes motivated to get an apartment and hold down a steady job. Enid finds herself not truly fitting in with life and she drifts through her friendship, jobs and family life lost.

Ghost World is one of those mood movies where nothing so much happens and that's what the movie is about. It's quirky and weird and it was easy for me to see why this film has a cult following. This is like the slacker/outsider's film festival. There are too few movies that celebrate young adults who are on the fringe and make sense (I found Napoleon Dynamite, reviewed here, to be an extraordinary disappointment). Indeed, in my recent cinematic experiences, only Dreamland stood up as a worthwhile endeavor with empathetic young characters. Ghost World does many of the same things by simply presenting two people who are more or less on the outside and letting them do their thing.

This is mostly accomplished through the character of Enid, a sarcastic artist who is disaffected with the world as she finds it, though she is not as joyless as her affect projects. Instead, Enid wants to live in the world, but she wants it to make sense. She seems baffled by the success of the phony faux-preppie wannabe's and her quest to connect with someone is real and interesting.

Arguably, though, Ghost World is about Rebecca stepping out from behind Enid's shadow. Rebecca, just as outside the mainstream as Enid, becomes focused on following HER dreams, which include getting an apartment in an good neighborhood and holding down a job to pay for it. Rebecca is constantly controlled by Enid at the beginning, who talks over her and essentially dominates her interactions with new people. When Rebecca begins to follow her dreams, she takes a stand - subtle as it may be - against Enid speaking up for her. It is only when Rebecca takes her stand that Enid's security line truly snaps, casting her adrift in the world that does not accept her.

What makes the film's characters work so well in establishing the mood of the movie is the acting of the principle actors in it. Illeana Douglas and Bob Balaban give supporting performances that use their understated talents quite well. Douglas plays Enid's art teacher and is so convincing that the moment she appears on screen, the viewer knows exactly what type of teacher she will be, so able is she to emote just by her presence. Balaban is in very few scenes, but he connoted such a complete and understated sadness that he is worth mentioning. Fans of the "Red Hot Chili Peppers" will recognize Dave Sheridan (the crazy cab driver from the "By The Way" video) as the slacker Doug.

Steve Buscemi plays Seymour and the role is one of the characters that he was perfectly cast for. Seymour is sad, sweet and the archetype of the aging geek. Buscemi plays Seymour with such a commitment to the character, defined partially through his broken, slouching body language, that it is only when Seymour has to put on his girdle and look awkwardly rigid that the viewer realizes just how committed Buscemi has been to the role.

Scarlett Johansson finally gives a performance where she has a substantial role and illustrates she can act. Awkward and jaded as Rebecca, Johansson projects an air of indifference while maintaining a strange undertone of angered dignity. Rebecca never confronts Enid about how she feels about Enid talking over her, but the tension that is palpable comes from Johansson's performance. Watching Johansson as Rebecca simply close her mouth when Enid starts answering questions directed at her established a strong, if subtle performance that deserves some serious attention.

It is actress Thora Birch who dominates Ghost World as Enid, though. Not a far cry from her innocent suburban role in American Beauty (reviewed here!), Birch makes Enid distinctive for her disaffected affect that screams "Outsider!" But Birch lends some wonderful quirks to Enid and her dancing that opens the movie creates a character that may be disaffected, but is still very much alive. Birch is responsible for making the viewer care about Enid and her place outside the mainstream and she succeeds with a gripping, if sublime, performance.

Sublime is a great word to describe Ghost World. It is a movie where the performances rely on understatement to create a world where those on the outside feel disconnected, emotionally and physically. Director Terry Zwigoff does an excellent job of creating this world and it's certainly worth the time of anyone who likes offbeat, quirky dramas where the characters do not necessarily fit our expectations of young people.

My final remarks on this DVD is the presentation on DVD is a little disappointing. While including the full dance scene from the 1965 movie that opens Ghost World (very quirky and weird to see now), there are a number of things lacking from the DVD. There is no commentary track and the deleted scenes do not include moments that were cut from the film that are in the trailer. For such a good film, it's disappointing not to be able to see or hear more about it.

Otherwise, this is as solid as a movie can be when it is about people who don't fit in and are at a stage in their life where they have to figure out what they are doing with it.

For other films with Bob Balaban, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Gosford Park
Best In Show
Cradle Will Rock
Midnight Cowboy


Check out how this film stacks up against others I have reviewed, by visiting my Movie Review Index Page where films are organized from best to worst!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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