Ghost World May 30, 2016
Sometimes I like to pretend I’m in a TV show. Preferred is a program specifically like The Office, in which disgruntled characters are given the opportunity to look straight into the camera, with deadpan smugness, no less, whenever something unusual makes its way onto the scene. Coming to mind is Jim Halpert, the show’s secondary hero who gives the series some of its biggest laughs just by mugging for the camera whenever his boss, Michael Scott, does something questionable.
Of course, Jim Halpert is fictional and so is Michael Scott, and I exist in a world I’d like to think is real rather than written. Therefore there are no cameras around for me to break the fourth wall of. I can laugh all I want at life’s many ironies, its many detours that look almost exactly like a vintage Saturday Night Live skit. But unless I’m with a friend or a like-minded acquaintance, no one can enjoy an easy-to-make-fun-of moment of time in quite the same way I can. For those few minutes am I able to tell myself that I’m above the given situation I’m internally guffawing at. But am I really that much better myself?
The central characters of 2001’s Ghost World live perpetually in that bubble of self-regard: so staunchly intelligent are they in their minds that everyone around them appears to be artificial and little-minded, countering in their ability to detect the world’s bullshit. I’m not as cynical and not nearly as wrapped up in myself. But Ghost World’s Enid (Thora Birch) and Becky (Scarlett Johansson) are.
We first meet them on the day they’re graduating from high school. Outsiders within a typical American town jam-packed with strip malls and fast-food joints, they’ve spent their entire lives existing as wallflowers within a community that will never understand them — they only have each other, and that’s perfectly fine with them. Better to have a friend who can recognize the spurious natures of classmates and authority figures than fake friendships for the sake of looks.
Initially, though, we’re not so sure that we like them. They mock the school’s valedictorian, wheelchair-bound from a traffic accident that took the lives of several other classmates, for her sudden angelic persona. “I liked her so much better when she was an alcoholic crack addict,” Enid snickers only minutes after the ceremony comes to a close. Later that night, they attend the senior party looking down on every person they make eye contact with. They’re rejects brainier and more world-weary than almost every other kid their age. They know that they have more in the way of observation than most, but they also aren’t so sure how to fashion themselves into people much more than cultural critics heard by no one.
At least that’s how Enid feels. She likes thrift shops and obscure blues records, and is amused by “authentic” 1950s diners and adult video stores. But she isn’t as aware in regards to what she fancies for her future self; to think of marriage or adulthood or another year is a scary unknown she’d rather not think about. She’d prefer to remain a high school senior forever, able to scoff at the imbeciles around her for the rest of her life. She thrives on the understanding that she is, intellectually, a cut above her peers.
But those days are over, and reality is setting in quickly and painfully. Despite their unbreakable bond throughout their schooling, Becky is beginning to show signs of thirsting to do more with her life — she wants to get an apartment with Enid and eventually go to any university that will take her. She’s gotten a job as a barista to help pay for her hopeful endeavors. But such aspiration is disgusting to Enid, who would rather sneer her way through her existence.
To avoid thinking of the pitfalls of responsibility, she decides to wreak havoc on the life of Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a loner who posts an ad in the newspaper seeking a mystery blond he met and liked but never got the number of. In an unthinkably cruel move, Enid and Becky respond to the advertisement and watch wickedly as he shows up for a date that will never arrive.
New for Enid, though, is a sense of guilt. She’s used to making people the object of fun behind their backs, only rarely laughing at someone in front of their face. So she feels bad for the prank, later showing up at a garage sale in which he’s selling antique records. To her surprise, she likes the guy — they match in their loneliness, though Enid isn’t so conscious of her own despair at the moment of their first genuine meeting.
Time goes by and things grow increasingly unsteady — Enid and Becky begin to drift apart, Enid spending most of her time with Seymour in the process — and Ghost World’s metamorphosis from self-aware teenage black comedy into viscerally desolate character study is a bruising one. It turns its back on its main characters, introducing them as whip smart girls of the Heathers category only to suddenly see them as susceptible misfits who don’t have the thick skin their verbal lashings might suggest.
Which is what makes it the affecting film that it is: it recognizes the sharpness of its characters but never forgets that self-awareness does not always lead to satisfaction. It vocalizes the hard truth that maybe Enid and Becky’s friendship is more out of school-day survival than eternal adoration, that maybe Enid will never know what to do with herself, and that maybe she will end up like Seymour, who hasn’t had a girlfriend in four years, works a boring day job, and obsessively collects old blues 78 RPMs because he’s so incredibly alone. It’s a humorous film, to be certain; but its laughs are rooted in sadness. Is it worth chuckling at things we might not, and Enid and Becky might not, be that much better than?
Directed and co-written by Terry Zwigoff, Ghost World is an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name by Daniel Clowes. Acclaimed for its astute portrayal of modern alienation, its film counterpart matches in its lonesome inflictions. It’s as blackly funny as it is emotionally devastating. There are never any obvious developments in the plot or predictable character maneuverings. Birch is wondrously droll (though I like her the most when she’s at her least guarded), and Johansson is impressively dry. Buscemi is touching, and Illeana Douglas, as Enid’s flighty art teacher, steals scenes with subtle deftness. Its ending leaves something to be desired — it’s too vague for a movie so fully realized — but Ghost World is one of the great coming-of-age films. A-