Ghost World

Ghost World

Ghost World

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   C R I S S A - J E A N   C H A P P E L L

Enid stakes out her target in a retro '50s diner. She draws his profile in her sketchbook: a bulgy face like a Mylar balloon, hair gelled to the side, hovering in a dense cloud of doom. He sits on a swivel stool that renders him taller, slurping a vanilla shake through a straw. Enid takes note of every detail. She decides to follow the freak home.

Seymour is one of the potato-like people whom Enid (Thora Birch from American Beauty) documents with a felt-tip pen. She trails them around the gray, dehydrated outskirts of suburban Los Angeles. Just out of high-school, Enid has no plans for the next five minutes, so she spies on fellow outsiders like an archeologist from another planet. She might add a self-portrait to her ever-expanding line-up: a picture of a post-punk with square hair and Salvation Army glasses, the costume of an earlier time to which she doesn't belong. Rebellion made more sense back in the 1970s.

Her sunnier sidekick, Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) shows vague symptoms of normality. She frequents chain-stores devoted to home furnishing and works in a designer coffee shop. She thinks it's cruel, calling up Seymour (Steve Buscemi). But Enid wants to figure him out. She spotted his bizarre personal ad in the back pages of a lonely hearts column--something about a blonde he bumbled into by accident. He was wearing a green cardigan. He helped her find a contact lens. Is he crazy or did they share a "moment?" "He's the exact opposite of all the things I hate," says Enid.

During the day, the worn-out forty-something is just another cog in a fried chicken franchise. At night, he throws "parties" for his Ragtime record-collecting colleagues, schlumpy middle-aged losers resigned to hermithood. They drool over the dust-encrusted 78s, unaware that Seymour keeps the good stuff sealed in his ultra-chintzy room, adorned with cheeky memorabilia from the Depression days.

Enid launches a new campaign for her kindred spirit, a hopeless quest to find him a female counterpart. Seymour has doubts. "I don't want to meet someone who shares my interests," he whines. "I hate my interests." Their search accentuates what they already know: that they can't relate to 90 percent of the people in this bland modern world which they abhor. When Enid brings Seymour to a rowdy blues bar, she tallies potential male partners for herself and finds only phonies with a myopic sense of how nice everything seems. It's Seymour's honesty she admires. He's so unhip, he's actually cool. To her dismay, Seymour begins dating a perky real estate agent with whom he has nothing in common and Enid mourns another friend to the realm of pseudo-happiness.

Ghost World works like a not-so-secret message in code, a happy face sticker with a minus sign for a mouth or a T-shirt that warns, "smiling is a warning sign of a stroke." Far from a stylized cartoon of our own wretched outland, it's a surreal, coloring book outline with telling details, populated with caricatures of every familiar hometown nutcase, like the wizened old man in a rumpled suit who waits on a bench for a bus that will never arrive. According to Enid, he's the only one she can count on.

Based on the smart mouth characters in Dan Clowes' underground comic book and brought to the big screen by prize-winning documentary filmmaker Terry Zwigoff (Crumb), the film doesn't content itself with clever answers. It lets us into Enid's world without allowing us to feel superior. As enacted by Birch, Enid is far more convincing than the cutting, verbally-acrobatic kids of typical teen comedies. Under her hard-edged surface lies a sweeter center, not dissimilar to the film itself. She is always fascinating to watch--whether cracking wise or sitting still, listening to the running commentary in her head.

Who else but Buscemi could play Seymour? One of Enid's drawings (pulled off by R. Crumb's daughter Sophie, a cartoonist, while Clowes did most of the other art, including the credits) brilliantly links Seymour to Don Knotts. Other memorable performances include Illeana Douglas as Enid's self-important art teacher, a politically correct feminist who praises coat-hanger collages. These characters work because they are so specific and believable. In the end, Ghost World takes a risk that illustrates how Enid and Seymour have finally snapped out of their stupor, if not solved all their problems by crossing paths. His loneliness has stamped out her own.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: United Artists
Movie Web site: Ghost World



Photos: © 2001 United Artists. All rights reserved.