Accentuate the negative.
Based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes, Ghost World stars Thora Birch (American Beauty) and Scarlett Johansson (The Man Who Wasn't There) as two recent high school graduates who get into more trouble than a boatload of angry bulls in a china shop. Critically lauded though not a huge hit, Ghost World also stars Steve Buscemi (Con Air, Fargo) as an oddball loner who befriends one of the girls. A strange assortment of characters come and go in this offbeat little comedy directed and co-written by Terry Zwigoff (the critically acclaimed documentary Crumb).
Facts of the Case
Enid (Birch) and Rebecca (Johansson) are two teenagers who find themselves with time on their hands the summer of their high school graduation. Both girls are a little left of normal—while Rebecca displays somewhat "normal" teenage qualities (i.e., sarcasm out the ying yang), Enid seems to be in a world of her own where everyone is stupid and cynicism rules her life. Strange friends and characters weave in and out of their days, including a hapless teenage convenience store clerk (Brad Renfro, Apt Pupil), a batty art teacher (Illeana Douglas, Stir of Echoes), and Enid's passive single father (Bob Balaban, Waiting For Guffman) who doesn't seem to have a clue what's going on in her life.
While browsing through the papers one day, Enid and Rebecca come across a personal ad in the L.A. Weekly. The person who placed the ad is searching for a woman he had a chance meeting with at an airport shuttle (the ad reads "is it just me or did we have a moment?"). Enid and Rebecca spark an idea: call the person who placed the ad, pretend to be the woman, and set up a fake date at a local restaurant. All goes according to plan as the girls wait at a local '50s mock diner for their unsuspecting victim. To neither girl's surprise the man turns out to be a bookish looking loner named Seymour (Buscemi). After his long wait the two girls follow him back to his apartment where they find him working at a local "garage sale" selling old records. Enid starts a conversation with Seymour, which soon turns into a genuine friendship.
Soon the two are spending time together discussing old-time records and looking for a potential date for Seymour. And suddenly Enid and Rebecca's little joke gets out of hand as both the girl's friendship and Enid's heart are in jeopardy of being broken.
Ghost World has its finger firmly placed on the pulse of teenage America. It's movies like Kids, Orange County, and Ghost World that make me long for the days of John Hughes comedies. This isn't to say that Ghost World is anything like a John Hughes film—it just works within the confines of its own time period. Writers Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff seems to have a great deal of knowledge about how kids of today talk. Granted, as with most films, Ghost World is an exaggeration of today's youth. However, the way these characters interact with each other is spookily like what I've seen in the local high school where I sometimes work.
Loneliness and isolation seem to be the key themes running though Ghost World. Each character is really an island unto themselves. Enid and Rebecca have a friendship, though it seems based more on indifference for a friend than a desire to build a bond with each other. When Enid meets Seymour, she's at first repulsed, but then curious—here is a guy who is, as she states, "the exact opposite of everything I hate." Seymour is the type of guy who grows on you. At first it's obvious that he's a sad sack who is uninteresting and freakish, though as each scene progresses it becomes obvious that there's more to him than meets the eye. Steve Buscemi gives the performance of his career with his portrayal of the lonesome Seymour. With his strangely parted hair, bulging eyes, and odd facial features, Buscemi looks just like a real life R. Crumb comic book character.
The rest of the cast sparkles, led by Thora Birch's abrasive Enid. Birch defies conventional teenage beauty and as such comes off as a genuine, actual teenager. Brad Renfro and Illeana Douglas are both funny and quirky in their roles (I especially liked Douglas' whacked out art teacher, a woman so flighty that she looks as if she might do an actual take-off from a local runway at any given moment). As always, Bob Balaban is universally dependable as her mousy father. (Is there ANY other part that Balaban can play? Not that I'm complaining…)
The movie is filled with moments that are both heartbreaking and hysterical. A record collector's party at Seymour's apartment reeks of desperation and solitude (it doesn't help that his roommate is the living, breathing essence of sloppiness). A high school graduation dance displays an eeriness that makes me thankful I never have to step foot inside a classroom ever again. My personal favorite, that of when Seymour attempts to hit on a woman at a local bar, made the movie rise heads above most everything I saw this past year.
There's something special going on in Ghost World that makes it well worth seeing. Much like Welcome To The Dollhouse and Happiness, Ghost World is filled with people that are outside their lives looking in—loners, degenerates and isolated geniuses. If you're lucky, you might be able to relate.
Ghost World is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. MGM has produced a very fine looking transfer on this disc. The bright color patterns that pepper the film are all sharp and crisp with an unusually even display of depth. Black levels and flesh tones all appear even and natural. The only imperfection I spotted was a small amount of edge enhancement during a few key scenes, though it wasn't enough to warrant any real complaint. Overall this is a very good looking picture.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 in English. This surround mix works well, though the bulk of it comes from the old time music and small amounts of background ambiance. The rear speakers kicked in during a few scenes, though overall this is a relatively subdued track. All aspects of the dialogue, effects and music are free and clear of any distortion or hiss. Also included on this disc are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
Ghost World doesn't include enough supplemental features to label it a "special edition," though MGM has added a few key elements that should please fans. There are four deleted/alternate scenes that are amusing to watch, though I can see why they were cut from the final film. Each of these scenes are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and don't display as much detail as the final film.
A 1965 music video by Gumnaam (uh, whoever they are) titled "Jaan Pechachaan Ho" is included that's just really, really strange. Everyone in the video are wearing Zorro-like face masks and the dance numbers look as if they dripped out of John Water's Hairspray (or, maybe it's the other way around). This video is also partially featured during the opening of Ghost World.
The "Making Of Ghost World" featurette clocks in at around 12 minutes and is a solid notch above the normal promotional fluff. The featurette includes interviews with cast members Thora Birch, Steve Buscemi, Bob Balaban, Illeana Douglas, Scarlett Johansson, Brad Renfro, and Teri Garr, as well as director Terry Zwigoff, writer/creator Daniel Clowes, and a few other crew members. The cast seems very insistent on making sure that Ghost World isn't seen as a "teen movie" (though Bob Balaban happily points out that "it does have teens in it"). Each interviewee seems to have some interesting insight into the movie and, happily, the title "Ghost World" and its meaning are discussed and explained. Unfortunately, this feature is also plagued by the dreaded "too many film clips" curse.
Finally, there are theatrical trailers for the films Ghost World, The Princess Bride: Special Edition, The Terminator: Special Edition, and a promo spot for the Ghost World soundtrack.
Strangely sad and funny at the same time, Ghost World represents what is great about independent films and movies that defy convention. MGM has done a more than acceptable job on this title, though a commentary track by the director would have been most welcome.
Ghost World and MGM are both acquitted on all charges!
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Scales of Justice
• "Making Of Ghost World" Featurette
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