Photo by Tracy Bennett

The title of the new film Ghost World comes from the graphic novel written and drawn by Daniel Clowes, a Bay Area–based artist with a knack for turning the seemingly ineffable into haunting cartoon images. Clowes gets loneliness down on paper the way Degas once did on canvas. In the painter’s café portrait Absinthe, a woman in a wilted hat sits at a table with a glass of puke-colored liquid. It’s an unforgettable image of aloneness that takes you beyond the table, beyond the café, even beyond the museum, and makes you think about those moments when you, too, drunk or stone-sober, have been alone in the world. The thing is, it’s all incredibly beautiful — the stupid hat, the foul drink, the sour, downward curve of the woman’s mouth — and it’s the fact that beauty can live in such ugliness, in despair, that gives the painting its larger truth. There’s that same ache and beauty in Clowes’ work, and remarkably, given that this is his first try at fiction, director Terry Zwigoff has managed to capture it in his film.

Best known for his documentary about cartoonist Robert Crumb, Zwigoff pulls off something in Ghost World that seems a minor miracle — he creates someone with a complex inner life. That may not surprise anyone who’s seen Crumb, a prickly film about a prickly subject, but it’s a relief at a time when action and gleaming surfaces count more than the murk and mystery of being. The lack of good characters and decent writing is a familiar enough complaint about the movies, but what’s really gone missing is a sense that anyone has an internal world, a yearning, searching consciousness. Enid and Rebecca (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson), the teenagers at the center of the film, aren’t just searching — they’re stabbing away at the world with the inchoate, touching fury of children choking on their own rage and tears. Just graduated from high school, the girls are too smart to fit in but not so smart that they understand why it hurts when they don’t; surly and caustic, they cling to each other as if to life preservers. And while Zwigoff, who wrote the screenplay with Clowes, clearly doesn’t want them to drown, he has the integrity to know better than to just bail them out.

It’s early summer, and the girls are facing the rest of their lives. Enid, dark in coloring and mood, soft in shape but brittle-hard, is one of those adolescent curmudgeons with a “Do Not Disturb” sign tattooed on her soul. Rebecca, a willowy question mark, is Enid’s Eve Arden — blond, with a dry wit and an infinite sympathy for her friend. As with so many stories about girls, Ghost World begins with a suggestion of unrequited love, then drifts into something else as the pair separate. Rebecca wants them to get their own apartment, but Enid can’t face leaving the refuge of her bedroom, not because she doesn’t want to grow up, but because the world out there — the 9-to-5, married-with-children, low-cholesterol, mortgaged, franchised, rationalized, sublimated world — is a horror. So Enid burrows deeper inside, and, after a fashion, begins to find herself both in her art (she’s a cartoonist) and in a friendship with Seymour, a collector of old-time ephemera and a terminal outsider who, as played by Steve Buscemi, is a riff on Crumb himself, from his forlorn old-man clothes and posture to his jazz 78s and delight in tumescent women.

Zwigoff never tells us if Enid ever leaves her room, and we never do find out what the title Ghost World actually means, only that it’s something melancholic and a little heartbreaking. Enid and Rebecca may be living in a ghost world or they themselves may be ghosts, perhaps both. You can’t even tell what it is they’re haunting, a town or a suburb, since their external reality is indistinguishable from thousands of other anonymous zones across the country. The girls find oases in a local café, in a retro diner called Wowsville, in a zine store patronized by slouchy young men with the pasty, distracted look of serial masturbators. Mostly, though, they live in a world of their own making. As in Clowes’ cartoon, not a lot happens to them, and it doesn’t matter — there’s a yard sale, an art show, some wistful sexual flailing. If Zwigoff doesn’t always make his movie move (he’s overly faithful to the concept of the cartoon panel), he has a gift for connecting us to people who aren’t obviously likable, then making us see the urgency of that connection. When Enid lies in her bedroom listening to the blues, putting down the
needle on “Devil Got My Woman” again and again and floating into the ether, it’s a measure of this film’s gentle power that we don’t want to leave her room either.

The most interesting thing about the new romantic comedy America’s Sweethearts is that the very individual who’s likely most responsible for getting it made in the first place — director and studio head Joe Roth — is also the least important part of the final product. The film is so anonymous, so corporately conceived and executed, that the director is incidental. What matters here are the big stars, the little guys who ran the cameras and did the sound, and, if only because of his genuinely oddball delivery as a lisping Spanish lover named Hector, Hank Azaria. Less memorable are Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack as Gwen and Eddie, a movie-star couple on the marital outs forced together by the studio that’s set to release their latest feature. The two stars look pretty good and move through the scenery like professionals, as does Julia Roberts, who, as Gwen’s long-suffering doormat sister, Kiki, proves her worth as Time magazine’s recently anointed “best movie star” in America by pretending to play second banana to Zeta-Jones.

Billy Crystal, who plays the publicist masterminding a press junket that’s meant to launch the new Gwen and Eddie movie, wrote the screenplay with Peter Tolan. The script is studded with bits of amusing shtick, but as with those long Academy Awards nights, there’s far too much dead time in between the jokes. (The best stuff is a tantalizing glimpse of Zeta-Jones tap-dancing alongside Christopher Walken — it’s the only moment in the film that doesn’t feel canned.) Devoid of an authorial voice or a semblance of individual style, America’s Sweethearts is a run-of-the-mill compilation of throwaway laugh lines, strained caricature, movie-star allure and perfectly fine craft, and none of it would be worth bothering about if the movie wasn’t also smug about its own mediocrity. But there’s the rub. The film isn’t just banal, it’s aggressively, arrogantly banal. It’s awash in a miasma of Philistinism, which is why it’s entirely predictable that the character of an eccentric director (Walken) would inspire Crystal and Tolan to take potshots at Godard and Kubrick. Still, you’d think that Roth —who’s supposed to be the smart one, the guy who gets it — would have had better sense, especially since his film’s under-30 demographic probably doesn’t know who these geezers are. Then again, maybe Roth actually believes that all these actors signed up to work for him because they saw through his power right to his irrepressible, thirsting talent.

GHOST WORLD | Directed by TERRY ZWIGOFF | Written by ZWIGOFF and DANIEL CLOWES | Based on the graphic novel by CLOWES
Produced by LIANNE HALFON, JOHN MALKOVICH and RUSSELL SMITH Released by United Artists | At Sunset 5 and Westside Pavilion

AMERICA’S SWEETHEARTS | Directed by JOE ROTH Written by BILLY CRYSTAL and PETER TOLAN | Produced by SUSAN ARNOLD, DONNA ARKOFF ROTH and CRYSTAL Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide

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