Based on Daniel Clowes’ reality set comic book the incredibly positive press reviews may have led you to believe that this would be a very clever and very funny study of teenage life, and not just another tacky quest for tacky sex ala American Pie, Road Trip et al. And it is far better than those aforementioned movies, being intelligent stuff with complicated characters and believable situations, as the two leads trot out many a pithy one liner to a superb soundtrack featuring a mix of the blues, jazz and classical music. But I couldn’t help but feel it doesn’t quite succeed in what it sets out to do.
There isn’t really a plot other than that it follows the trajectory of a summer of Enid’s life as she attends summer school, and her relationship with Steve Buscemi’s introverted music lover Seymour. Thora Birch is strong in the lead role, and makes you wish her career hadn’t gone in the way that it did, but it’s hard to be enticed by her plans to get a job and move in with best friend Becky (Scarlett Johansson), both of which fail to come to fruition, as all the while she looks for an answer to the tedium of small town life and a place in life in a distinctly slacker-esque way. I did find myself thinking that if Richard Linklater had taken on the source material it would have been more interesting, director Terry Zwigoff is someone I’m fond of due to his documentary on Robert Crumb and the film Art School Confidential but here he lacks any real insight, and something of an issue is that the comic sometimes shows the characters in a less than flattering light but that is often missing here.
Coming across like a static road movie where our characters idly stroll from location to location in their suburban hell, frustratingly Ghost World only partially works. Birch, Buscemi and Johansson are appealing leads at first, with Birch having perfected her disillusioned teenager and Buscemi has never been more sympathetic. But it all feels a little aimless, and after the first hour, as the humour fades and the drama takes over, it becomes increasingly harder to care what happens to the characters. Perhaps what makes the situation worse is that Ghost World is like a more upbeat version of Buscemi’s directorial debut Trees Lounge, but with the emphasis on it’s teenage characters rather than Buscemi himself, and it’s nowhere near as thought provoking or emotion evoking as that gem of a mostly forgotten film. Zwigoff manages to capture the oddness of the comic’s tone well but pace wise it suffers, and could easily have been thirty minutes shorter, which is a real problem given that it’s under two hours in the first place.
Perhaps I’ve been too damning but it’s largely because I’m such a fan of the graphic novel. It is an intriguing and often amusing comedy, and much better than most of the films released that year, 2001 not being a particularly good year for cinema, and it is definitely worth catching – it just hasn’t aged that well, it’s not as intelligent as it seems to think it is, and doesn’t quite capture the nuances of the original comic in the way I was hoping.