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and Randy Barbato

As any fan of Tenacious D or High Fidelity can tell you, Jack Black has honed the persona of the cocksure, rockin’ anachronism to a fine point. Those charismatic musical turns, however, have been very nearly eclipsed by a stream of nonrockin’ dreck. But after coasting through Saving Silverman, Shallow Hal, and Orange County on his ample talent for physical comedy alone, Black is back to his true calling with School of Rock, the first of his cinematic ventures to put one of the actor’s classic-rock-loving characters where he belongs: front and center.

Deadbeat guitarist Dewey Finn is a typical Black slacker, as fond of extended guitar solos as he is averse to personal hygiene. (When Dewey stage-dives, no one tries to catch him; one audience member shouts, “Gross!”) After his fed-up bandmates kick him to the curb, the out-of-work musician impersonates his roommate, Ned Schneebly (supermeek Mike White, who also wrote the film’s screenplay) to land a $650-a-week gig substitute-teaching at the elite Horace Green Elementary School.

Though he takes to the role of Mr. S (Dewey realizes he can’t spell “Schneebly” halfway through writing it on the chalkboard) the best he knows how—by wearing a scarf and a bow tie and demanding all-day recess—Dewey can’t keep his impulse to rock at bay. As soon as he overhears his precocious fifth-graders playing sweetly in music class, he hatches a scheme to mold the classically trained, deeply skeptical kiddies into a force that will rule the town’s annual battle of the bands.

That age-reversed snobs-vs.-slobs concept sure didn’t work for Uptown Girls, but White’s screenplay expertly dodges the pitfalls of kindercore storytelling. As Dewey convinces the overachieving tykes that their rock band is a special class project for which they will earn many gold stars, the maudlin moments and life lessons are kept to a bare minimum, as is the age-inappropriate dialogue—though grade-grubbing “class factotum” Summer (Miranda Cosgrove) offers a funny exception: “I researched groupies on the Internet,” she cries, outraged at her assigned role in the group. “They’re sluts!”

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The kids serve mostly as expert straight men, watching wide-eyed as Mr. S lectures that rock ‘n’ roll “will test your head, your mind, and your brain.” Black, meanwhile, mostly avoids broad physical comedy, chewing up the screen with his self-assured motormouth and peering around corners with kabuki-style arched eyebrows and smirks. Though hardly cartoonish, his presence is so outsized that the other adult actors tend to join the kids as passive observers: Joan Cusack does strong supporting work as Horace Green’s uptight, Stevie Nicks-loving principal, but both White and Sarah Silverman, who plays the submissive Ned’s domineering girlfriend, barely register.

Though it sells his own character short, the rest of White’s script is drum-tight. Whereas his previous collaboration with Black, the dreadful Orange County, failed when the screenwriter forsook wit for pratfalls, School of Rock is full of inspired delights. The class takes notes on an AC/DC video. When another teacher asks Dewey his philosophy on testing, he cops a verse from “Teach Your Children.” He assigns the kids nicknames such as “Spazzy McGee” and “Turkey Sub” and insists that the group’s keyboard player, the uncool “Mr. Cool,” assiduously study Rick Wakeman’s solo from “Roundabout.”

The character represents a return to form not only for Black, but for director Richard Linklater as well. Linklater’s previous foray into classic-rock-related comedy, 1993’s breezy, pitch-perfect Dazed and Confused, remains the high-water mark of his career. In recent years, however, his résumé has been littered with absorbing but unsatisfying experiments: The visually interesting Waking Life was weighed down by pretension, whereas the relatively unpretentious Tape, basically a filmed one-act play, wasn’t at all visually interesting.

School of Rock won’t win any awards for its functional art direction, but by abandoning the safety net of an arty premise, Linklater has made his most fully realized film since Dazed: The frenetic pace of Dewey’s lessons keeps the show moving; a guitar-heavy soundtrack that includes the Who, Cream, Zeppelin, and T. Rex keeps it rockin’; and the obligatory final band battle is an appropriately gratifying capper. When Black prances around in shorts, Angus Young-style, it seems obvious that he should never again be seen sans ax. As Dewey says: “Would you tell Picasso to sell one of his guitars?”

Macaulay Culkin, another man-child from a land that time forgot, also returns to the screen this week, after a nine-year post-Richie Rich absence. It’s hard to imagine a showier role for Culkin’s comeback bid than that of notorious club kid Michael Alig, the titular character in the overblown Party Monster.

For several years in the early ’90s, Alig lorded it over New York night life, spreading his philosophy of “fabulousness” among a captive audience of 24-hour party people. These “celebutantes”—a phantasmagoria of freaky kids dressed in chicken outfits, ball gowns, and, occasionally, head-to-toe fake blood—were famous simply for being famous. With an assist from trust-fund money, they created a solipsistic universe that included trading cards and a magazine that celebrated their accomplishments.

During one talk-show appearance, James St. James (Seth Green, dressed as a three-eyed troll) espouses Alig & Co.’s egalitarian ethic: “If you have a hump, throw some glitter on it and go dancing, honey.” That’s all bull, though. Club-kid culture was an opportunity for the excluded to do some excluding: It was all about knowing whom to know, where to go, and how to act.

The fact that anyone reigned over this cadre of the self-important is impressive. That it was Alig, a social reject among social rejects from South Bend, Ind., makes it all the more remarkable. Alig’s dramatic rise and fall—from outcast to leader of his own merry band of outcasts to imprisoned murderer after he announces to anyone and everyone that he killed his drug dealer—evokes Shakespearean tragedy. But in terms of substance and style, Party Monster owes less to the Bard than to a summer-stock production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Though the film’s makeup and costume design are remarkable, writer-directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who made a 1998 documentary based on the same material, show no knack for the sinuations of fictional filmmaking: The drugged-out scenes are shot under bright lights with a fisheye lens. Alig and his friend and mentor St. James address the camera and engage in meta-I’m-a-character-in-a-movie commentary for no explicable reason. And though the narrative makes it resoundingly clear that Alig just wants to be loved, he delivers the line “I just want to be loved” regardless. Oh, and then there’s the giant, talking stuffed rat who reveals to St. James how Alig committed the murder…

But for all of the directors’ bungling—which also includes allowing their talented ensemble cast to atrophy from disuse—Party Monster is essentially Culkin’s film to win or lose. His stagy delivery, replete with prancing and ceaseless repetition of the word “fabulous” in an affected Katharine Hepburn-esque accent, isn’t necessarily the movie’s death blow. But whereas Green’s overenthusiastic performance offers insight into the brash St. James’ self-importance, Culkin’s overacting doesn’t illuminate the magnetism, will, or sexual energy that catapulted Alig to the center of the celebutante universe.

Indeed, the movie’s best scene comes halfway through and haunts the remainder with the specter of missed opportunity: Alig struts into a hole-in-the-wall fast-food joint and places an order for 300 burgers and 300 fries. Seconds later, an army of costume-wearing club kids streams through the storefront. As Culkin smirks, his eyes full of self-satisfied invincibility and sexual dominion, the infatuated counterman introduces himself—”I’m Rodney. You can call me Rod for short.” Within seconds, the cops arrive and everyone disperses. The moment is ever-so fleeting—but for one tantalizing instant, Alig’s power pervades the air. CP