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Film Opens July 20

After under-the-radar director Terry Zwigoff scored big with his darkly funny study of tortured illustrator/legendary sourpuss Robert Crumb, you'd think he'd have more than enough clout to explore any territory he so desired as a sophomore project. Instead, he minimizes risk in returning to the same source material by teaming up with Daniel Clowes, one of the leading pretenders to Crumb's indie comix throne, to bring his celebrated series to the screen. The team, laboring on the project since 1997, smartly resisted the attempt to recreate the entirety of Ghost World, a move that always tempts the wrath of diehard fanboys who invariably cry foul when their beloved tale is manipulated. Instead, Clowes and Zwigoff have collapsed and omitted points from the original story (found in issues 11 through 18 of Clowes' groundbreaking series Eightball) and incorporated various other characters and plotlines from throughout Clowes' oeuvre into a brilliantly clever and subtle piece that should appease devotees and enthrall newbies.

Zwigoff leads the movie off with a compact nod to both Ghost World's notorious cyan tint and to the comic artform itself via a terrific tracking shot which peers into the open windows of a nondescript apartment building, each window a comic panel framing the activity of its occupants, as the cumulative cathode flicker of their televisions bathes the screen in a ghostly (get it?) blue hue.

It is here we are introduced to best friends Enid and Rebecca, two painfully cool and detatched hipsters done with high school and now free to live their irony-drenched lives on a full-time basis. Enid—a Buzzcocks listenin', zine readin', thriftstore wearin' grrl (played by the sensational Thora Birch)--and best friend Rebecca (played by the capable Scarlett Johansson) spend graduation summer doing what they do best: obsessively cataloguing the local freaks, dancing to obscure Bollywood musicals and generally having a ball splashing in the shallow puddles of trash culture, enjoying a safe life cobbled from a mishmash of pop referents and arch irony (although you'd never know it from their scowls). Gawd, look how pathetic they all are is the mantra of these ultimate critics, young'uns who have not yet begun to experience the real world yet readily dispense judgement without risk, all commentary and zero effort.

It is through Enid and Rebecca, who act as both targets and autobiographical stand-ins in the self-loathing exhibitionist form extolled by cartoonists like Crumb and Clowes, that the film fires its salvo against our Age of Irony, a protest against the technique we moderns have managed to distort into a religion of emotional de-investment, a culture that creates people who can opt to live in cozy, protective husks.

Enid and Rebecca take merciless potshots against the raging lameness of the straights surrounding them from a newly discovered haunt, a retro '50s diner which positively oozes inauthenticity, which as the acme of false experience comes complete with such Elvis-era accoutrements as longhaired waters, modern prices and tabletop jukeboxes that offer last year's Top 40 hits. It is in this milieu that Enid continues to dodge settling down with an identity by cobbling together personas from a postmodern smorgasbord of already-defined subcultures; at one point, she defends a sartorial decision against Rebecca's ridicule by pointing out that, obviously, her dyed hair and Perfecto leather jacket signify "authentic '77 punk" and not a postpunk '80s or punk-esque '90s iteration. In distilling the original story down into a feature-length film, Clowes and Zwigoff chose to focus primarily on Enid, sacrificing Rebecca's character by truncating her conflicts; eager to take a joe job in order to move out from her parents' house, she has already decided to jump into adulthood while Enid still struggles to find the courage to sell off her old stuffed animals at a yard sale. The film orbits Enid as she slowly realizes that the safety of youth must be replaced by an actively led, open-ended life which often means a sloppy, risky and isolating endeavor, a premise she finds terrifying but ultimately necessary (rendered beautifully in the film's haunting final image).

The pair one day bump into Seymour, a lonely, Crumb-y vintage collectibles dealer (and, admittedly, an echo of Zwigoff himself) effortlessly brought to the screen by Steve Buscemi. At first, Enid has simply found the next neighborhood weirdo to dissect, a guy to gawk at for cheap laughs whose cluelessness and unselfconsciousness make him "almost cool." After a cruel prank loosens a kernel of pathos buried deep within her bulldog front, however, Enid begins to hang around the schlub and finds his guarded desire to live out a drab little existence with a modicum of dignity to be revelatory and attractive. Enid finds trace elements of herself in Seymour, who has long ago exchanged the same kind of kitsch-worship for a life infused with honest feeling and authentic experience, trading a youthful interest in collecting racist advertising art for the sublime beauty of old jazz 78s (it is no coincidence that he makes his living selling off the past to other people). A seed is planted in Enid after she borrows a copy of one of his prized Skip James sides and spends the night playing it over and over, captivated by the song's honesty and deep soul as it floats high above her bedroom's mess of junk culture.

Zwigoff sets all of this action in the kind of unnamed American anywhere one might find in a Jim Jarmusch or Alex Cox film, a mildly bizarro world of wacky mini-mart customers, humdrum garden apartments and seething ennui. As Rebecca and Enid grow increasingly distant, a process complicated by a subtle rivalry for the romantic attention of their laconic friend Josh, Enid moves closer to Seymour, and the film hovers in and between zones of uproarious comedy, nostalgia, biting cultural criticism and melancholia.

The bulk of the film riffs on the changing relationships between Enid/Seymour and Enid/Rebecca, using the two dyads as springboards for Clowes' sharp and complex studies of jealousy, pop culture, family life and, in a subplot ripped straight from his scathing "Art School Confidential" strip, the arrogance of those who attempt to define an art canon. The film presents itself slowly and plainly, with economic camerawork courtesy of Affonso Beato (the lensman behind Pedro Almodovar's similarly surreal "All About My Mother") and a mise-en-scéne that favors dramatic colors. Terrific performances abound, from Bob Balaban as Enid's emasculated dad (recalling Jim Backus from "Rebel Without A Cause") to Ileanna Douglas' hilarious turn as a vapid, passive-aggressive Aht teacher.

Ghost World smartly remains high above the ironic mire its characters slog around in, never stooping to tell itself in those terms. In fact, the movie runs counter to the MTV-ication of American cinema, its truly eclectic score refraining from overpowering the narrative by keeping to the sidelines and its unflashy, gentle editing style allowing content to reign over form; if the powers that be had gotten their paws on this succulent project, we could have expected a generic rock video of a movie complete with loud, "hip" soundtrack, disorienting jump cuts and countless marketing tie-ins. Indeed, Ghost World fundamentally succeeds by refusing to pander to the culture that creates the demand for vulgar, intellectually impoverished films, a lesson perhaps influenced by the debacle surrounding Clowes' earlier bid for a mainstream audience, the infamous OK Cola campaign of the mid-90s.

Instead of a tongue-in-cheek, Jennifer Love Hewitt-helmed teen romp that would have played nicely at the multiplexes, Zwigoff and Clowes have created a perfectly unspectacular, smart indictment of the hollowness of contemporary American culture, taking an offbeat, funny and both mournful and hopeful look at a place peopled by those content with passively consuming a life empty of spirit and real meaning.

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