Movies

Thora! Thora! Thora!

The star of Ghost World nails teen-age alienation; America’s Sweethearts has one-liners, Julia Roberts, and not much more.

Ghost World

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

MGM



America’s Sweethearts

Directed by Joe Roth

Columbia Pictures

Thora Birch in Ghost World

Enid (Thora Birch), the glum, vaguely punkish heroine of Ghost World, begins the movie by frugging ecstatically to a tape of a vivaciously tacky Indian rock musical of the ‘60s—an unfashionable enthusiasm, which is the only kind that Enid will express. Any other kind would expose her to ridicule—and ridicule is her specialty. At her high-school graduation, she watches a girl in a wheelchair (a recent accident victim) make an inspirational speech and rolls her eyes, then gives the finger to her school as a parting gesture. Later, at a party, her best friend, Rebecca (Scarlet Johansson), says, “This is so bad it’s almost good,” and Enid says, “This is so bad it’s gone past good and back to bad again.” She and Rebecca pass the days by wandering through the urban landscape making genial fun of loser depressives and scathing fun of loser go-getters. With their short skirts and baby fat and air of bored contemptuousness, these teen-age girls don’t qualify as losers themselves—but loserdom is obviously beckoning, with bony fingers.

Ghost World, based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes and directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb), is pitch-perfect—not just the most enjoyable movie of the year but the first (after Crumb) to get the tone of a certain strain of “underground” comic right. The elation of reading Clowes and R. Crumb (and Harvey Pekar, and a few others) comes from watching self-styled losers transform their feelings of disgust, self-hatred, lameness, alienation, anomie, and (most important) adolescent yearning into a new kind of art—one that does more to restore one’s sense of connectedness than anything this side of Notes From Underground. Clowes might be the most cosmically despairing of them all; but the fact that he can stand far enough outside his fear of an all-encompassing vaporousness to make his inner universe explode across the page means he’s also the most consoling.

It helps that Clowes is acidly funny and that Zwigoff (who co-wrote the screenplay with Clowes) has the same mordant empathy for his subjects. Seemingly deadpan frames are packed with feeling—outfits and hairstyles and décor that signal the characters’ pathetic attempts to express their uniqueness in a kitsch-laden culture. The air that surrounds the slacker dialogue is packed with tension—with Enid’s resentment of the more WASPily attractive, less resolutely idiosyncratic Rebecca, and with the even more urgent fear that there’s no middle ground between an outsider’s lonely integrity and a conformist’s soulless surrender of individuality. The unwitting villains of the movie are the ambitious extroverts, like the girls’ effusive classmate Melora (who’s taking acting classes) and Enid’s talentless art teacher Roberta (Ileana Douglas), a rich girl who has no patience for “indulgent” self-expression—who preaches a BS political (i.e., knee-jerk liberal) and exclusively other-oriented aesthetic.

Actually, Clowes’ and Zwigoff’s aesthetic manages to be both self-indulgent and political. It’s anti-capitalist in the sense that it equates success in modern society with selling yourself—something abhorrent to Enid (who’s fired from her job at a movie concession stand for saying the feature stinks and describing the popcorn “butter” as “yellow chemical sludge”) but no big deal for Rebecca, who seems fine with wearing a uniform and parroting corporate mantras at a Starbuck’s-like coffee chain. Enid mocks the dorks on the fringe, but her heart is essentially with them, which is why she ends up dogging Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a shambling blues-LP collector straight out of R. Crumb (and apparently not so different from Zwigoff). After playing a cruel practical joke on him, she determines to give him the confidence to get a girlfriend. Or maybe she wants to surrender to him herself.

If the drama ended there—with Enid and Seymour the superior outsiders, the losers with integrity—the movie wouldn’t be so different from other punkish feel-good pictures. What makes GhostWorld so ineffably sad and rich is that Enid and Seymour aren’t sure of their own authenticity. They recognize it when they see or hear it—especially in a blues song like “Devil Got My Woman” by Skip James, heard via a crackly 1931 recording. But Seymour goes so far as to say he’d jettison all his interests—his obsessive passion for old blues records—in return for popularity, for a sense of belonging. (He probably doesn’t mean it, but he really wants a girlfriend.) The burgeoning cartoonist Enid isn’t sure about her own impulses, either: She knows what she doesn’t want to be but not what she does. The unspoken fear is that she won’t find a way to express herself because she has nothing singular to express. Or, as Clowes’ alter ego “Rodger Young” puts it, in the conclusion of a story called, “Like a Weed, Joe,” “I went to a new school where I struggled to be thought of as someone who housed a vital and complicated inner world.”

It’s possible that Zwigoff and Clowes are too much of a feather, that there isn’t enough tension in Ghost World between how Enid sees the world and how the world really is. But maybe, without that synchronicity, they wouldn’t have had the courage to embrace the nebulousness. And have I mentioned how hilarious the movie is, even at its most discomfitingly unresolved? Steve Buscemi is on an eyesore-dreamboat border that is continually shifting; Ileana Douglas makes the self-intoxicated cultural commissar both ghastly and exuberantly attractive; and Scarlett Johanssen brings a husky-voiced self-possession to the nubile Rebecca that makes her seem at once charismatic and weak—not fully worthy of Enid’s attachment. Then there’s the miraculous Thora Birch—hard, tremulous, jaded, seething: The way she gets both impudence and self-doubt into a single syllable is beyond praise. Birch played Kevin Spacey’s daughter in the lyrical but smugly pat American Beauty (1999). Everything spelled out there is poetically implicit here: Ghost World is the true American Beauty.

Cusack, Zeta-Jones, and Roberts in America's Sweethearts

Billy Crystal, who wrote America’s Sweethearts with Peter Tolan, has a jazzy way with a one-liner, and at his best he’s both Borscht-Belt crass and satirical. He writes smart, funny jokes, but he has no idea how to use them to build characters, and even less idea how to turn them into scenes in which something dramatic is at stake. The movie is a polished muddle, fitfully amusing but with no spine. Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack play husband-and-wife stars whose careers have gone down the toilet since she broke up their screen partnership by moving in with a cretinous Spaniard (Hank Azaria). Crystal plays the studio publicist assigned to bring the couple back together for a press junket. The film’s biggest star, Julia Roberts, plays Zeta-Jones’ formerly fat sister and caretaker. We’re supposed to root for Cusack to realize that the giving Roberts and not the vain Zeta-Jones is the love of his life, but he’s such a hapless, one-dimensional boob that you keep waiting for another, more attractive romantic hero to show up.

It’s not Cusack’s fault, and not Zeta-Jones’, either—the script just needed another couple of drafts or maybe another writer. Crystal and Tolan have been behind studio walls for too long: They have the strange notion that junket journalists (and celebrity interviewers like Larry King) are in the business of firing hardball questions. The only surprise is Julia Roberts, who is actually believable—yes, even after her grotesquely exhibitionistic acceptance speech at the Academy Awards—as a sane, grounded, radiantly unaffected, selfless non-star. Who can say she’s not a great actress now?