Although most widely recognized for his 2003 black comedy Bad Santa, director Terry Zwigoff’s particular idiosyncrasies are perhaps best captured in his 2001 narrative debut Ghost World, an acerbically angsty teen comedy featuring a superbly cynical Thora Birch as a misunderstood young woman rejecting social expectations.
A fitting transition from the his earlier cult documentaries Louie Bluie (1985) and the widely celebrated Crumb (1995), Zwigoff’s portrait of adolescent alienation commands a potent portrait of interiority as concerns its lonely souls searching for likeminded personalities within a superficial void (of note, this is the first feature adapted from a comic book source to receive an Academy Award nomination).
At the same time, it’s also an achingly realized time capsule of a particular period, the dying days of an epoch which would transform drastically over the next decade, defined forever from 9/11 to Facebook to a smart phone/social media dependent global culture hemorrhaging its eccentrics in the conquest of constant interconnectedness and digital imprints measured exclusively by amassing an invisible legion of followers.
In the ironic transition of a world embracing a glorified version of the microcosms of the high school popularity contest, we realize little Enid’s misanthropy would have only evolved exponentially from where we leave her. Based on the comic by Daniel Clowe (who co-wrote the script, and would collaborate with Zwigoff on the underrated Art School Confidential), it’s high time for Ghost World to expand its cult following.
Outsiders Enid (Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlet Johansson) have just graduated high school, but unlike a majority of their peers, have no plans to attend college. Instead, the best buds, who shirked and shunned the values and ideals of their classmates, are more intent on finding an apartment and moving in together. While Rebecca finds a job in a coffee shop, Enid’s pronounced disdain for the world around her seems to inhibit her occupational possibilities. As the two teens languish in their usual offbeat habitats, Enid decides to spontaneously answer a personal ad in a local paper as a cruel joke. As the friends observe Seymour (Steve Buscemi) wait in vain for a woman who will never show up, Enid finds herself taking an interest in the somewhat pathetic creature, a man she discovers is as socially disinclined to follow the masses as she is. As she inserts herself into his daily life, Enid and Rebecca’s friendship becomes strained.
The tone of Ghost World exists somewhere between the continuum of Whit Stillman and Strangers with Candy, an insulated universe downplaying the dreamlike magic most often attributed to Los Angeles in the movies. Enid’s disdain pares down the metropolis into the stature of Anywhere, U.S.A., a dead-end berg as transparent and soulless as anywhere else, sans her favored haunts of gauche retro-diners and cozy curio and comic shops (frequented by the likes of Pat Healy). In fact, Enid’s Holden Caulfield paradigm transcends the usual omnipotence of Los Angeles to the degree we become lost in her off-kilter, sometimes troubling shenanigans as the rest of La La Land takes a back seat in her tour of disdain.
Although its characters obsess over rare 78 rpm records in a universe then taken over by Compact Discs, the dependence on VHS tapes and soliciting in the want ads makes Ghost World as obliviously dreamy as any Los Angeles set film noir, existing in a world of formulas and devices which would soon become as extinct as the swiftly changing topicalities in their environment.
Ghost World’s characters also coincidentally reflect the trajectories of its cast members. At the time, Thora Birch was being groomed for greater things, this lead role following the breakout turn in 1999’s Best Picture winner American Beauty. However, troubling rumors about a career mismanaged by her own father would eventually hobble her ascension, whereas Scarlett Johansson (who had previously starred in serious minded supporting turns, such as Redford’s 1998 melodrama The Horse Whisperer) would transform into an A-list Hollywood celebrity only a decade later. The film is populated by a number of familiar faces from the period, including a young Brad Renfro (who sadly died in 2008), and character actress Ileana Douglas. Comic staples like Bob Balaban and Teri Garr are each featured as amusing tangents to Enid, but it’s Steve Buscemi’s particular brand of awkward social disease which makes Ghost World play like a Generation Y version of Harold & Maude (1971), and with a soundtrack (no Cat Stevens in this obscurely curated playlist) to cherish.
Criterion (who previously released Zwigoff’s documentaries as part of the collection) presents Ghost World in a newly restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by Zwigoff with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Brazilian DP Affonso Beatto (who worked on a number of Almodovar titles, such as All About My Mother and Live Flesh) transforms Los Angeles into a sunny but undefined wasteland in a much improved transfer many members of its beloved audience first experienced on VHS. An audio commentary track featuring Zwigoff, Daniel Clowe, and producer Lianne Halfon is available, as well as a number of choice extra features.
Art as Dialogue:
Thora Birch, Scarlett Johannson, and Illeana Douglas are featured in this new forty-minute documentary about the making of Ghost World, each speaking on how they came to be involved with the project and their experiences filming.
Nine minutes of deleted sequences are included here.
Jaan Pehechaan Ho:
The opening credit sequence of Ghost World utilizes a poppy sequence from the 1965 Bollywood film Gumnaam (The Unknown) featuring a performance of the song “Jaan Pehechaan Ho,” here included in its entirety.
Although a decade has passed since Zwigoff’s last theatrical feature, Art School Confidential (2006), with a little luck, Criterion’s resurrection of this endearing and poignant misfit comedy should remind audiences of the distinctive auteur we’ve been missing out on.
Film Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆