Recently, a major American newspaper listed Ghost World among the summer’s supernatural-themed movies. Wrong, but not by all that much. Based on Daniel Clowes’ comic book, this fresh, smart film is a dispatch from the overlapping zombie universes of soulless suburbia and late adolescence: Heroines Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) have just graduated from high school and are looking forward to independence, but not much else. Their long-term plan for adulthood is perpetual irony and alienation, funded by hourly-wage gigs at coffee boutiques and megaplex concession stands.
It’s not a perfect strategy. For one thing, sarcastic Enid can’t hold a jobwhich exasperates the more pragmatic Rebecca; the friends’ long-discussed goal of escaping their respective family homes requires that they split the rent on an apartment. In her defense, it must be noted that Enid is distracted. Before her diploma will be valid, she must pass a summer art class. (What kind of high school intellectual flunks art? Clearly, Enid is a formidable malcontent.) And she’s gotten involved with Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a sad-sack record collector who for Enid is half anthropological specimen, half possible soulmate.
Scripted by Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff, Ghost World skirts lots of dangers. Set in drowsy, vaguely outdated precincts of L.A., the movie initially comes on like the teen-girl edition of Swingers, swaggering with retro cool and a self-congratulatory taste for the subcultural. (The opening sequence is a sort of Jailhouse Rock dance number taken from a ’60s Bollywood musical.) Zwigoff is a little too willing to return to the oddball milieu of his 1994 documentary, Crumb: Seymour collects 78-rpm records of blues, ragtime, and hillbilly musicthe very hobby that first brought the director and R. Crumb togetherand Enid’s notebook drawings are actually by Crumb’s teenage daughter Sophie. Comic-book partisans Zwigoff and Clowes also take some overobvious swipes at “high art” in the form of summer-school teacher Roberta (Illeana Douglas), who rejects Enid’s drawings as lowbrow but is delighted when Enid cynically brings in a “transgressive” found-art piecea racist chicken-restaurant logo from Seymour’s collection of warped Americana.
It almost all works, however, because the characters of Enid and Rebecca are pointed, distinctive, and entirely believable. Take, for example, the messy business of sex. Although both young women report that they are not virgins, neither is seeking a boyfriend or is even amenable to the idea of romance. Passion is too embarrassing and uncool, although there’s another reason for their discretion: Both like their blank pal Josh (Brad Renfro), a convenience-store clerk, and neither wants to unleash the other’s jealousy by dating him. Instead, they sit in diners and make fun of the dolts around them or pull pranks on people who’ve placed personal ads in the L.A. Weekly. The latter diversion is what leads them to Seymour, who advertised in hopes of re-encountering a woman he briefly met at the airport.
Rebecca considers their meeting with Seymour a one-time caper, but Enid is seriously intrigued. The record collector is unquestionably a loserhe most of all thinks sobut Enid sees his estrangement from the emptiness of modern consumer culture as akin to her own. She lets his taste in music get under her skin, especially prizing Skip James’ haunting “Devil Got My Woman.” (You could say the song opens the door to a ghost world.) Soon, Enid is channeling her erotic inquisitiveness into a quest to get Seymour laid, albeit with the occasional detour; at one point, Enid insists that Seymour take her into a porn shop, where she becomes a smut purveyor’s nightmare: a young woman who laughs out loud at both the goods and the customers. Then the target of Seymour’s personal ad actually calls, and Enid’s position in his life is threatened.
Although Seymour is obviously a proxy for Zwigoff, Ghost World’s heroine’s full name is Enid Coleslaw, an anagram of Daniel Clowes. If such surrogate mating seems a little creepy, the pairing works better than might be expected. Although this is Zwigoff’s first fiction film, he has managed to elicit exceptional performances from the three principals. Seymour embodies both Zwigoff’s alter ego and the entire realm of authenticity being displaced as the United States turns into one vast, indistinguishable Latte Landyet he’s also convincingly human, thanks to an unusually restrained Buscemi. And Birch (whose last major role was the questing daughter of a more histrionic, less convincing suburban household in American Beauty) and Johansson are very nearly perfect. Whenever the movie risks self-indulgence or blatancyas when it mounts a two-decades-too-late attack on electric blues rocktheir dry observations restore the tone.
Both Seymour and Roberta were invented for the film, which is more plot-oriented and less concerned with the minutiae of Enid and Rebecca’s friendship than the comic. Roberta’s character is pure revenge for Clowes’ ’70s art-school travails, but Seymour is nuanced enough to offer the movie’s definitive statement on how America has changed since the days of 78s, sleek design, and overt racism: “I suppose things are better now. But it’s complicated.” A teen comedy that thinks the world is complicated? Perhaps Ghost World will awaken at least a few megaplex zombies from Hollywood’s voodoo spell.
Rush Hour 2 has it alland less. Jetting from Hong Kong to Las Vegas to battle an international counterfeiting ring, the movie sets off bombs, throws people off boats and out of windows, and tapes a minigrenade in one character’s mouth, all to little effect. Although this sequel to the 1998 Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker vehicle reportedly had a big-time Hollywood budget, the results look as slapdash as any HK B-picture.
Much of the action takes place in Hong Kong, where LAPD loudmouth Carter (Tucker) is visiting his buttoned-down HKPD pal Lee (Chan). Carter’s vacation is quickly interrupted when a mysterious woman delivers an explosive to the American embassy, killing two U.S. customs agents working a counterfeiting investigation. As in the first film, the authorities don’t want Lee and Carter anywhere near the case, but for Lee it’s (again) personal: Counterfeiting-ring mastermind Ricky Tan (John Lone) is the man who killed the cop’s father.
Tan’s U.S. ally is oily L.A. businessman Steven Reign (Alan King), who’s planning a new Vegas casino on a stereotypical Chinese theme. Both crime lords are outfitted with striking lieutenants: Tan’s is Hu Li, played by Crouching Tiger martial-arts babe Zhang Ziyi, and Reign’s is Isabella, played by Roselyn Sanchez, a former Miss Puerto Rico Petite. Also on hand (briefly) are Don Cheadle, as the Sinophile owner of an L.A. “Chinese soul-food” restaurant, and Jeremy Piven, as a flamboyantly gay Versace boutique salesman. The latter character appears in one of the two bits that scripter Jeff Nathanson blatantly ripped from Beverly Hills Cop.
The movie hops from set piece to set piece, without much concern for maintaining tone or even sustaining gags. (Appalled by a chicken-butchering HK street vendor, Carter ends up buying a chicken to spare its life, but the bird quickly vanishes.) Tucker gets a few culture-clash showpiecesgorging himself on coquettish Chinese beauties at a massage parlor, showing a Cantonese karaoke-bar bumbler how to really sing Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”and Chan is allotted several action sequences, notably one in which he makes a smooth slide through the impossibly small gap in a barred window.
As in all of Chan’s English-language buddy pictures, however, the format favors the fast-talking American. The trademark outtakes reel that ends the movie emphasizes this point: Most of the flubs are verbal, and most of them are Tucker’s. In one series of mis-takes, Tucker keeps calling Chan’s character “Jackie” until an annoyed Cheadle finally corrects him. Unsurprisingly, Cheadle’s exasperation with the high-pitched, one-note Tucker is the film’s most compelling moment. CP