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Not in Service 

When the first deliberately over-lit images of Ghost World burst from the screen, we think we must have happened into a John Waters movie. Asian dancers in Elvis spangles gyrate to rock 'n' roll music on a cheesy dance show from far, far away. Then in an American high school, her head propped aloft with a scaffolding of wire, a girl in a wheelchair delivers the valedictory address as a jeremiad about her own struggles with alcohol and crack. Later, almost consciously invoking Waters' Pecker, an art teacher's blather captures in an instant why John Q. Public is so indifferent to scurrilous political attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts. But as Ghost World proceeds, it deepens from the surface parodies across which Waters skates so effortlessly into a profound reflection on loneliness and vocation.

Ghost World is based on the serialized comic book tale by Daniel Clowes. Fittingly enough, Terry Zwigoff, who profiled comic-book artist R. Crumb in the 1994 documentary Crumb, co-wrote and directed this film version. Ghost World is the story of a high school senior who hasn't a clue what to do next. Dark-haired and faintly Goth, Enid (Thora Birch) pals around with similarly disaffected classmate Becky (Scarlett Johansson). The girls share both a disdain for the activities of all around them and an utter lack of direction in their own lives. They are bright but unsuccessful students with no ambition for college. When they graduate, Becky gets a job as a cashier while Enid goes to summer school to make up a failing grade in art.

As a lark, the girls drift into a mean game of voyeurism. They answer a personal ad from a sad sack named Seymour (Steve Buscemi) and set themselves up to watch him squirm when his phantom date fails to appear. Enid, however, takes no pleasure in Seymour's suffering and sets out to befriend him. He's hardly the most stimulating person. He has a nowhere middle management position with a restaurant chain, he collects old records, and he hangs around with other "losers" a lot like himself. Seymour isn't a bad guy, however. He's intelligent, self-effacing and entirely decent. And though Enid never acknowledges the fact forthrightly, she sees a lot of herself in Seymour and not a little to admire in his tidy response to life's absurdity. The development of their relationship forms this picture's narrative and emotional core, and what this picture has to say is sustenance for extended reflection.

Ghost World includes allusion to Enid's romantic interest in a convenience store clerk named Josh (Brad Renfro) that the script fails to develop adequately, and it ends with a post-credits prank scene that mysteriously undermines that which goes before. The picture is consistently funny, though, in its inside-out John Waters way. When she's informed that she'll have to go to summer school, Enid replies, "I didn't think an F meant you had to take the whole class over again." Encouraged by the pretension of her gaga teacher, an art student defends the eyesore of a mobile she's constructed from twisted coat-hangers as her advocacy of woman's right to choose. In a store called Masterpiece Video, no one has ever heard of Fellini. And in classic Groucho Marx-Woody Allen, Seymour observes about a ringing phone, "I have no desire to talk to anybody who might be calling me."

In a film that seems at first to be more interested in the satiric bite of the individual scene, Ghost World eventually develops considerable narrative drive. Enid decides to play Cupid and find Seymour a lover, and when she does, neither the teenager nor the new girlfriend like each other. Enid feels a connection to Seymour's peculiarities that the girlfriend doesn't, but how long will Enid's interest in Seymour last? The new woman doesn't share Enid's appreciation for Seymour's pastimes, but she does seem to like him. Might she help him expand his range of interests? Who will prevail in the battle for Seymour's affections? More important, who ought to prevail?

Though Ghost World is set in a city, most of its scenes are staged in almost spooky isolation. We are surrounded by others, yet so many of us remain fundamentally alone. As Enid is trying to determine the future of her relationship with Seymour, she becomes fascinated by a man who sits on a bus stop bench marked "Not In Service." The man waits patiently for public transportation that has abandoned his route. Enid, too, is not in service. She is not connected to society and has discovered no role to play either in the world or even in her own life.

That's exactly why she regards Seymour her hero. He's as ill-connected as she. But through force of will he has found a way of ordering his life, a way of stealing small pleasures from a pitiless, blank landscape. The film's brilliant end is purposefully ambiguous, full of both uncertainty and the mystery of hope. Yeats worried appropriately that "things fall apart," but somewhere, sometimes, they come together, too.

The foundation of the noir thriller long has been the exploration of what ordinary people would do in extraordinary circumstances. From Hitchcock to Polanski, real people have grappled with the surreal. And for the most part, the beauty of so many of these films have been that very juxtaposition, heightened even more so by just how surreal the world can become.

Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel take that convention one step further in The Deep End, based on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel The Blank Wall, by removing the absurdity of the situation and making it seem very real. Almost too real, in fact, which may be part of this otherwise intriguing film's undoing in spite of ennobling performances by the two leads. Here, McGehee and Siegel take a flustered suburban housewife and mother of three -- by definition someone in a constant struggle for survival -- and tests her mettle even further, especially when that struggle is heightened by the specter of murder and blackmail.

But unlike so many of its predecessors, The Deep End's style comes virtually from its paradoxical settings and cinematography. You might even call this a "blanc" thriller; instead of moving in the shadows of the dark, McGehee and Siegel place the story in the vivid light of day that lights up Nevada's Lake Tahoe. Sunlight floats atop the waves on the shore; wind snakes through lush green trees; the sky is a perpetual blue canvas. (Giles Nuttgrens won the Best Cinematography Award at the Sundance Film Festival.)

Instead of the "wrong man," they present the wrong woman in Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton), whose maternal instincts are in a constant state of challenge. With her naval husband out at sea, Margaret's left to raise her talented musician son Beau (Jonathan Tucker) and two younger siblings while keeping an eye on her ailing father-in-law (Peter Donat). In between doing the laundry and picking up the kids, Margaret must deal with her son's burgeoning affair with a seedy nightclub owner that very quickly ends in death. When it appears her son is the culprit, Margaret swings into action and hides the body, only to find herself the target of shady types who know about the affair and use it to extract money from Margaret that the victim owed them.

So into her life comes one of the partners, Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic, of TV's ER), who quickly seems like the blackmailer with a heart of gold. The more pressure he puts on Margaret, the more he realizes how impossible a situation his partner has placed her in -- and, subtly, how much he loves her.

It's an unspoken love, though, and this along with the exploration of Margaret's maternal instincts is where McGehee and Siegel truly excel. The Deep End, it appears, is the spaces that lie between us all, the gaps of communication that could make everything right, but never seem to. If she had questioned her son better, Margaret would have had a better idea of what to do with a corpse in her backyard dock. If she came clean to her father-in-law, maybe she could come up with enough money to satisfy her kidnapers. If she'd just go to the cops and explain everything, maybe she wouldn't be in this mess at all.

But we all know that human relationships are not that simple. We hold our tongue and work around our own emotional roadblocks. So Margaret presses on, working the phones with credit card companies while begging Alek for more time (which he's more and more willing to give, as he quietly envisions what a normal life with a normal wife might be like) and hiding a body she didn't kill.

This is where Swinton is at her best. Her pursed lips and darting eyes convey a woman in constant search for any tool that can fix her situation. That's what mothers do: solve problems, clean stains, shepherd the flock. It's no small symbol that her husband is out at sea, leaving her to her own physical and emotional abyss. Like so many women, she's forced to fend for herself, and Swinton brings a refreshingly subdued dignity to a role that's traditionally a walking panic attack.

All that is very well and good, and McGehee and Siegel deserve a great deal of credit for bringing an original approach to the genre. But, after the novelty of that approach begins to wear off, the problem remains: Where are the chills? What do you do when a thriller doesn't thrill? As Margaret and Alek head toward what feels like an inevitable conclusion (OK, it's a noir thriller after all), the viewer's left with the question: Is that all there is?

Instead, we're left with what we have, which is an earnest little film that plays with conventions and offers new ideas. Which in itself is far better than the rest of what's out there.

click to enlarge Enid (Thora Birch) and Becky (Scarlett Johansson) try to figure out what to do after high school in Ghost World.
  • Enid (Thora Birch) and Becky (Scarlett Johansson) try to figure out what to do after high school in Ghost World.


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