The Bitch of Kitsch

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

Cuddly outsider No. 63178D, please step forward. Well, my goodness, look at you! You are so alternative, so fringe, so punk! So artsy and alienated! So utterly aimless and oozing with angst! Tell us, girl, what ought we to call you? Edwina Scissorhands?

That's one easily justified reaction a viewer might take away from 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 help her eclipse Molly Ringwald and Winona Ryder once and for all as teen queen of the nonsanguine.

Because Ghost World also happens to be undeniably amusing, the more popular reaction might be to chuckle appreciatively at the shrewdness of it all while generously assisting producer John Malkovich in making more money. But don't listen to that genius critic Peter Travers; this thing isn't a rebuke to Hollywood crassness, it's a huge, honkin' celebration of crassness.

In Ghost World, Thora Birch seems poised to eclipse Molly Ringwald and Winona Ryder as teen queen of the nonsanguine.
In Ghost World, Thora Birch seems poised to eclipse Molly Ringwald and Winona Ryder as teen queen of the nonsanguine.

Set in a polarized American suburbia where everything sucks and everyone knows it (witness the white band Blues Hammer howling about pickin' cotton), the movie faithfully reproduces the locations and mood of Clowes' mean, meandering comic miniseries. It also expands on the property, delivering more than just girls with boners, errant pants on the sidewalk and routine hate-mongering against WASPs. Like the comic, the movie is plotless beneath its meaningless title, but it succeeds where the comic fails, giving us characters we can actually care about while we're pointing at them and laughing our fool heads off.

Enid (Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are high-school chums with a friendship not terribly unlike that of Janeane Garofalo and Uma Thurman in The Truth About Cats & Dogs -- that is, Enid is repressed and deranged, whereas Rebecca may actually have a future. After the movie's cheese factor is firmly established by way of voyeuristic peeks into trashy tenements where all the crappy old TVs blast the same giddy Indian musical, we meet our ... er ...heroines. 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. (Of a hunk and his honey, Enid casually opines, "He'd better watch out or he'll get AIDS when he date-rapes her.") 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. Ahead lies the great frontier of suburban ennui, already well charted in innumerable feature projects (some of which have accidentally won big fancy awards) but somehow revived for yet another bout by Zwigoff and Clowes.

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. Although this could hardly be called novel either (pick a Gregg Araki, Richard Linklater or Kevin Smith movie), Zwigoff forged himself a sharp pack of scalpels during Crumb, and here he dumps a similar load of guts onto the slab. This isn't technically a documentary, but the freaks and geeks on parade look too real to have emerged from a makeup trailer. Who knows -- maybe they cast the project in Seattle or Austin.

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), and finding a better poster boy for disenfranchised margin-dwellers would be challenging indeed. 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 enough joins her in a pathetic but uncommonly 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 helping to pump the irony is Illeana Douglas as Roberta, the only person who's possibly more deranged than Enid, and thus, ultimately, a supportive role model. As the instructor of the "remedial high-school art class for fuck-ups 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 -- keen, for example, to lionize a tampon in a teacup -- but she 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, traipses past street loonies, battles pat racism and just chills in her dank bedroom with a blues 78 courtesy of Seymour, all Johansson really gets to do is walk the straight-and-narrow, taking a job, seeking an apartment and so on. 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.

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