Ghost World is writer/director Terry Zwigoff’s third film—a sketchy record, especially considering that his first two were documentaries: Louie Bluie (1985), inspired by an old 78-rpm record he once found, and Crumb (1995), about cartoonist Robert Crumb and his phenomenally screwed-up family. Still, Ghost World is so good that I hope we don’t have to wait five or six years for his next one.
In a sense, Ghost World blends themes from both of Zwigoff’s previous movies. It’s based on a serial comic by Daniel Clowes (who worked with Zwigoff on the script), and one of the main characters, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), is an ardent collector of vintage 78s. (Zwigoff even tosses in a private joke by having Seymour dismiss a recording by R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders as “nothing special.”)
I’ve never read Clowes’ comic, but Zwigoff and cinematographer Affonso Beato give Ghost World the perfect look of some other modern-alienation comics I’ve seen: garish colors, formal compositions and the screen crammed with clamoring images of urban blight. Even when the camera moves, it feels as if our own eyes are sliding from one panel to the next. This is established early on—in the first scene, in fact, as Zwigoff takes us past a succession of house and apartment windows to the accompaniment of a weird-sounding song, finally settling in the bedroom of Enid (Thora Birch), our heroine. That’s when we find out what the song is: a number from a bizarre Indian musical that’s playing on Enid’s TV.
Obviously, if Enid watches Indian musicals on TV, we’re intended to get the idea that she’s no ordinary teenager. In a way, though, she’s quite ordinary: she’s the kind of bored, jaded, disgusted-with-the-world, oh-so-far-above-it-all teenager we’ve seen in books and movies (and comic books) all the way back to The Catcher in the Rye. Enid’s in serious danger of being a walking cliché, and casting Thora Birch in a part so much like the sneering daughter she played in American Beauty is taking a big chance.
But that’s where Zwigoff and Clowes—and Birch, for that matter—surprise us. All three of them combine to make Enid’s story different from what we expect. As Enid and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), her slightly more conventional but no less disaffected best friend, make plans to move in together during their first summer out of high school, Enid’s path crosses that of Seymour (Buscemi). At first Enid is disdainful of Seymour—he’s such an obvious loser, and she calls his phone number as a prank when she finds it in the personal ads.
Before long, though, Enid becomes interested in Seymour’s record collection, then in Seymour himself, and she begins to see the 35-ish
Seymour as an older version of herself—an aged and ripened version of her disdain rather than just another hapless target of it. A hesitant friendship sprouts between them; Enid even helps Seymour get results from the personal ad she once ridiculed behind his back. Meanwhile, Enid herself has trouble finding a job—even pushing popcorn at a cineplex lasts her only one day—and Rebecca grows impatient with Enid’s fecklessness, and mildly nauseated at her attachment to Seymour.
None of this leads where we expect it to, and the inventiveness and unpredictability of Zwigoff and Clowes’ script is Ghost World’s greatest virtue. And Zwigoff gives us unexpected little touches. For example, the sight of Enid sporting a rubber Batman cowl she picks up during an impulsive visit to a sex shop—the frisky smile on Thora Birch’s face makes this shot one of the most genial and enjoyable close-ups in any movie all year. Zwigoff also gets fine performances from Birch and Steve Buscemi. It’s a pleasure to see Buscemi playing a real character for once rather than a wisecrack-machine.
Ghost World falters slightly in the home stretch, as Zwigoff seems to grope for a way to resolve all his plot threads. He doesn’t manage to resolve them quite smoothly enough, but it’s a minor stumble, too little and too late to spoil the comic pleasures of what has gone before it.