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Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2001

. . . And then there's angst

Ghost World

Rating: * * * * 1/4 Director: Terry Zwigoff Running time: 111 minutes Language: EnglishNow showing

If you're lucky, you made it all the way through high school as one of the in-group, one of the "normal" kids. The next least-bad fate was to not fit in, but remain convinced that somehow you could. Harder still was to know that you were never going to fit in and to forge an identity out of this rejection: deadhead, nerd, gun-freak, sensitive folk singer, perpetually outraged minority.

Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch are anti-"normal," anticlique and unhappy in "Ghost World."

Yet the lowest level of hell is reserved for those who are intelligent -- and cynical -- enough to realize that plugging into a preformed counter-culture is just another form of conformity, an anti-clique. Here awaits total isolation, where "normality" may as well be a dimension away. Welcome to "Ghost World."

That's the title of director Terry "Crumb" Zwigoff's new film, and it's one that throws a lot of people as it suggests an SFX blockbuster sort of thing. But the ghosts here are its loner characters, misfits like Seymour, a 78-rpm record otaku and recluse played by Steve Buscemi, or Enid and Becca, the funky, sullen teen outcasts played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson.

Based on an acidly perceptive comic-novel by Dan Clowes (the Todd Solondz of the comic world), "Ghost World" is a very, very funny tirade against all that is banal, shallow and crassly commercial in today's America. It breathes in all the junk -- the generic franchise stores, the corporate double-speak ("Is it crazy for an oil company to care about the environment?"), the PC platitudes, the million channels of cable TV with nothing to say, the robotic service-sector jobs and the relentless, omnipresent sales pitch -- and blows out the only sane conclusion: This sucks. Seymour sums it up, saying, "I can't relate to 99 percent of humanity! Everyone else is happy with a Big Mac and Nike!" Enid puts it even less charitably: "Everyone's too stupid!"

Arrogance? Maybe. Frustration? Definitely. And here's where the film's poignant edge lies: Zwigoff and Clowes skillfully draw characters who can't stand being a target market, but equally loathe their own negativism, the way they paint themselves into a corner of perfect solitude. But they can't help themselves.

Zwigoff painted this portrait before, with his brilliant, excoriating documentary "Crumb," and in fact he brings many of the same concerns to this, his first feature film: dysfunctional family life, comics, 1920s music, problems with the opposite sex and the otaku obsession with collecting over connecting. But Zwigoff shows himself to be an astute director of actors as well. Buscemi -- the embodiment of "not fitting in" -- is at his best; he gives Seymour the sour weariness of a guy who realizes his collection of old blues records still won't make him feel any better about not having a date. Ileana Douglas ("To Die For") is hilarious as Enid's PC art teacher, while Thora Birch, following up her wonderful performance in "American Beauty," plays Enid with a wiseass wit that's too sharp for her own good.

Enid and her shadow, Becca, are snide, but they're fed up with a prefab lifestyle. They find their joys in offbeat corners: They frequent faux-'50s-theme diners with hip-hop on the jukeboxes, rent kitschy old Bollywood musicals, wear mix-'n'-match thrift-shop outfits, worship unfunny comedians and chat with the neighborhood nut cases. You'll swear you've seen these girls before on some Harajuku back-street.

The tension comes when they graduate and have to start coping with the real world. While Becca slowly moves toward an accommodation with reality -- looking for an apartment in the 'burbs and working at a franchise coffee shop -- Enid starts to unravel as she finds herself unable to curb her disdain for the "normal." Typical is when Becca accuses Enid of "hating every guy on the face of the earth." Enid can only reply, "No, I don't. I just hate all these extroverted pseudo-bohemian losers." And the jocks, and the business majors, and reggae fans, and, and, and.

One guy Enid does like is Seymour, a 40-something nebbish old enough to be her dad and who's about as socially skilled as a gopher. The girls first encounter him on a cruel prank: They answer a classified he placed, set up a fake date and then surreptitiously watch him squirm when no one shows. Becca's opinion on Seymour is clear: "He should totally just kill himself." But Enid sees something there: "In a way, he's such a clueless dork, he's almost cool."

Their friendship really starts to fray when Enid starts hanging out with Seymour, an obsession that Becca just can't understand. Seymour can't either; when Enid tries to set him up with other women, he asks her why she bothers. "Perhaps I can't stand the idea of a world where a guy like you can't get a date," replies Enid.

It's a cruel world for loners, but Zwigoff's film portrays their plight with sympathy and style. Where "Pearl Harbor" represented the mainstream ideals of predictability, commercial savvy and a bland mass appeal, "Ghost World" is its polar opposite: quirky, confrontational and definitely not for everyone. Misfits of the world, this one's for you -- enjoy.

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