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Teenage alienation has rarely been as funny as it is in Ghost World. Two teenage girls, Enid and Rebecca, are graduating from high school, and their lack of direction about the future is outmatched only by their contempt for the present. Enid (Thora Birch) follows her graduation ceremony, in which she spends most of the time rolling her eyes, by stomping on her cap with her Doc Martens. Then she heads to her school-sponsored graduation party ("It's so bad it's gone past good and back to bad again") where she hurls invectives at her fellow classmates.
As summer begins, Enid and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, Horse Whisperer) spend their time dreaming about getting an apartment and making fun of other people. One of their pranks involves answering a personals ad. They show up at the diner to gawk at the "loser" who thinks he's headed for a date. And in walks Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a middle-aged guy dressed in a green cardigan. At first Enid finds the situation hilarious, but then she starts following Seymour, discovers more about him, and slowly begins a friendship.
The script, based on Daniel Clowes's underground comic and written by Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff, is full of stinging one-liners and clever repartee. It also captures the awful hilarity of the suburbs. Mary Zophres costumes, particularly for Birch and Buscemi, are inspired and contribute a great deal to the look of the movie.
The best part about Ghost World, though, is the acting. Steve Buscemi, who shines in almost everything he does, is a perfect Seymour. His hangdog look and expressions of bemusement and bewilderment convey a man who's been beaten down by the world but hasn't quite given up. The real star of the show, however, is Thora Birch. In American Beauty, she proved she could play an alienated teenager; but in Ghost World, she also exhibits fantastic comic timing and a range of emotions. And Scarlett Johansson does a nice job with the little she's offered. In subtle ways, she conveys how her alienation is quite different than Enid's, which sets up one of the main conflicts of the film's latter half.
With the movie's great acting, witty dialogue, and intriguing characters, Ghost World had the potential of being one of this year's best films. Unfortunately, it couples those strengths with an extremely confused and banal social agenda.
At times, Ghost World seems to be critiquing the dumbing-down of American culture. The opening credit sequence is a not-so-subtle comparison of Enid's love of world music with families that sit around in their underwear watching television. A red-neck hick who buys beef jerky and tries to start fights is held up to scorn. And Enid and Rebecca's graduation ceremony features a ridiculous female hip-hop trio.
High-brow culture comes in for contempt, as well, however. Enid's summer-school art teacher (in a nice performance from Illeana Douglas, To Die For) is a gender-based video artist who overlooks Enid's drawings because there's no social context but then is fooled by Enid's simplistic justification of a "found-art" piece.
But the movie also wants to have a heart of gold, ala American Beauty. Characters that were once ridiculed are later shown in a better light, and coy but simplistic narrative devices are used to create a semblance of depth. An old man who sits every day waiting for a bus that will never come features prominently in the film's conclusion. Unfortunately, that twist is foreshadowed early in the movie, thereby greatly diminishing its power. Furthermore, the relationship between Enid and Rebecca is never fully explored, and Rebecca remains more of a foil than a real character. And despite the nice look of the film, Zwigoff's direction is haphazard.
Ghost World is one of those films that you enjoy while you watch. Just don't think too hard about it afterwards.
by J. Robert Parks 8/13/2001