The Bitch of Kitsch

Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes trap us with a raptor in Ghost World

Cuddly outsider #63178D, please step forward. Well, my goodness, you are so alternative, so fringe, so punk! So artsy and alienated! So utterly aimless and oozing with angst!

That's one reaction a viewer might have to Thora Birch's power-moping in Ghost World,the new collaboration between director Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Louie Bluie) and comic book iconoclast Daniel Clowes (Eight Ball). Despite the presence of several sublimely cracked actors and some of the most abrasive white-trash caricatures since Raising Arizona, Birch totally owns this movie. With all the compassion of a reptilian raptor -- an image she proudly sports on her favorite T-shirt -- her kitschy bitch seems poised to eclipse Molly Ringwald and Winona Ryder once and for all as teen queen of the nonsanguine.

Since Ghost World also happens to be undeniably amusing, the popular reaction might be to chuckle appreciatively at the shrewdness of it all while generously assisting producer John Malkovich in making money. But this thing isn't a rebuke of Hollywood crassness; it's a huge, honkin' celebration of it. Set in a polarized American suburbia where everything sucks and everyone knows it, the movie faithfully reproduces the locations and mood of Clowes's mean, meandering comic miniseries. Likewise plotless beneath the meaningless title, the movie succeeds where the comic fails, giving us characters about whom we can actually care while we're pointing at them and laughing our fool heads off.

Thora Birch (right, with Scarlett Johansson) is too cool for school
Thora Birch (right, with Scarlett Johansson) is too cool for school

Enid (Birch) is repressed and deranged while chum Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) may actually have a future. The setting is their tacky high-school graduation party, their attire is thrift-store polyester, and as Enid duly notes, "This is so bad it's gone past good and gone back to bad again." The saccharine nastiness of the event makes for a fine launch into this comic universe, with the girls talking endless trash about their deserving peers. But this, of course, is merely commencement, and high school -- "the training wheels for the bicycle of real life" -- has become a part of the past.

On the surface Ghost World is about two girls searching for meaning in a rather hopeless environment, but what's really afoot here is an incisive vivisection of domestic junk culture. Like Reservoir Dogs -- another holy hipster standard with a meaningless title -- Ghost World is bound to be waved as a banner of liberation by cashiers, retail clerks, and waitpersons for some time. And why not? The project shares with that film the ever-titillating Steve Buscemi (at his funniest and most vulnerable since Fargo), poster boy for disenfranchised margin-dwellers. His character here -- a lonely audiophile named Seymour, extrapolated from elements in the comic -- starts off as the butt of one of Enid's pranks but soon joins her in a pathetic but moving romance. "He's the exact opposite of everything I truly hate!" she announces in her ardor. In this context that's as good a reason as any to love.

Also pumping the irony is Illeana Douglas as Roberta, the only person who's more deranged than Enid and thus, ultimately, a supportive role model. As the instructor of the "remedial high-school art class for fuckups and retards" that Enid is forced to take in summer school, Roberta at first seems antagonistic. With hilarious results she prioritizes emotional origins high above finalized forms but also becomes the taskmaster who almost saves Enid from herself.

As the straight lady to Birch's wacko, Johansson is given the short end of the stick here, mostly pouting and mouth-breathing like a female Butt-head. As Enid explores a porn shop or battles pat racism, Johansson merely walks the straight and narrow, taking a job and seeking an apartment. This is necessary for contrast, but Johansson -- who's very good in the forthcoming American Rhapsody -- deserves better than second fiddle. Likewise Brad Renfro, Bob Balaban, and Teri Garr don't get to be much more than set dressing.

Observing Enid's behavior we are perhaps inclined to recall the wretched mutant newborn in Alien Resurrection and how we're guilted into feeling compassion for it yet know it's probably best to let it get sucked out the spaceship's window into oblivion. Imagine an entire movie about that creature -- with loads of laughs -- and you've got Ghost World.

 
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