- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2001

Patience is a must during the first reel of "Ghost World," which threatens to suffer an early collapse from monotony while introducing Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as high school misanthropes Enid and Becky, who seem to be almost immobilized with contempt for their peers as graduation approaches and then passes.
When a character quips, "This is totally unbearable," it's easy to apply the remark to Terry Zwigoff's movie, derived from a 1998 comic book by Daniel Clowes, who also collaborated on the screenplay.
Movies that rub you the wrong way in the early going rarely transcend unfavorable first impressions. "Ghost World" proves a remarkable exception. When it discovers an agreeable comic tone, patience is amply rewarded. The movie becomes distinctively funny and touching, an inspired elegy for misfits and loners.
The transformation coincides more or less with the entry of Steve Buscemi, destined for absurdly lovable immortality as a character invented by Mr. Zwigoff, possibly a comic self-portrait, named Seymour. He appears to be a middle-aged sad sack when conned into a practical joke by Enid and Becky. The girls kill time in the first days of summer vacation by singling out a lovelorn ad in a personals column and arranging a rendezvous with poor Seymour, who appears at a local diner, Wowsville, and is sneered at from afar by the schemers.
Fortunately, the girls aren't entirely malicious. A bad conscience about the stunt prompts Enid to follow Seymour and strike up an acquaintance, which begins when she buys a blues record he's willing to part with at a weekly garage sale. It turns out that Seymour knows an awful lot about vintage jazz and blues recordings. Like Terry Zwigoff, he has a substantial collection, along with a comparably fascinating set of vintage advertising posters.
Enid regards this kind of hidden passion and erudition as very cool. She begins to hang around with Seymour, ignoring Becky, who has forged ahead with self-supporting plans that Enid neglects — holding down a job and looking for an apartment the girls were supposed to share.
Enid has excuses for dragging her feet and cultivating the Seymour mentorship, which blossoms into a fleeting romance. She needs to make up an art class as a condition of graduation.
It proves another thorn in her side. She has illustrative talent — authenticated by a sketchbook supplied by Sophie Crumb, the daughter of the famous underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, the subject of a memorable documentary completed by Mr. Zwigoff in 1994.
The instructor, Roberta, a wonderful screwball role for Illeana Douglas, is biased in favor of feminist abstractions.
Enid's essential sanity is established in part by her resistance to Roberta's stale avant-garde preferences. The girl doesn't think she has to explain why there's a sketch of Don Knotts in her sketchbook.
She just likes to do caricatures and has a flair for them. Despite her shortcomings, Roberta also does Enid a potentially large favor in the long run, alerting her to an art school scholarship that seems a plausible step in the right direction for this unorthodox youngster.
Although Becky is the one who knows how to keep a job, Enid endears herself by demonstrating how to lose one in a matter of minutes. A highlight sequence observes Enid behind the concession stand at a multiplex, alienating three customers with her sterling, self-defeating sarcasm.
The fonder one grows of Enid and Seymour, the sharper and more ingratiating the movie becomes. The decisive turnaround is a sequence that finds the two en route to a club that boasts a blues band.
Mr. Buscemi has a superlative rant, initially triggered by the sound of rock music on his car radio, then aggravated by slow-as-molasses pedestrians crossing the street in front of his idling automobile.
The combination of asperity and helplessness seems uniquely funny. Sooner or later, "Ghost World" probably will spawn a sitcom, but one would prefer to think of Seymour as a singular creation, inseparable from Steve Buscemi and this movie.
Mr. Zwigoff shortchanges Scarlett Johansson, the stirring juvenile lead in "The Horse Whisperer," by failing to take some kind of comic interest in Becky's capable, hardheaded personality. She vegetates until it becomes convenient for the plot to use Becky as a spoilsport.
The actors who supply fleeting comic portraits get a better showcase: Miss Douglas as Roberta; Bob Balaban as Enid's mild-mannered dad; Brad Renfro as a classmate the girls like to pester; Dave Sheridan as a lunatic customer at a convenience store; Brian George as the store's fuming manager.
The soundtrack for "Ghost World" ought to be fabulous, assuming it includes every evocative number heard in a fragmentary form in the movie. Presumably, some of the blues classics come from Mr. Zwigoff's collection.
The movie's inevitable ascent to classic status might be hastened if the director, working for the first time in a fictional format, could be persuaded to cut the superfluous final sequences, which insist on ribbing Enid and Seymour in ways that are no longer necessary.
Clearly, "Ghost World" should end with an epiphanous fade-out as Enid watches a minor character named Norman achieve a seemingly impossible dream.
It's the perfect capper for a comic fable calculated to urge patience, tolerance and hope on bright young people inclined to be too hard on everyone encountered in a world that somehow refuses to smarten up or measure up.

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