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October 5, 2003


Movie Review: School of Rock

In School of Rock, we see two gifted men at work: one taking on a role he's waited his whole life for, the other taking his talents in a new, simplified direction. The result is a movie which seems to perfectly realize the vision of these two men.

Back in the days when he was still "Hey, It's that Guy!", we took note of Jack Black as he charged towards the camera (in his now trademark helter-skelter style) in Mars Attacks! and wished he could have loosened up a bit as he unraveled the mystery of "Chip Douglas" for Matthew Broderick, the friend who spurns him in Cable Guy. But since High Fidelity, in which he offers one of the most scene-stealing performances ever, Jack has been a star in search of a film that would allow him to shine his brightest. Saving Silverman was a step in the right direction, but Jason Biggs sucked the life out of every scene he was in, an unfortunate foil to Jack's manic energy. Orange County, if you think about it, should have generated as much buzz as School of Rock. Mike White wrote that one, too, but there was a problem with the final product that Jake Kasdan turned in: it wasn't funny. And then, of course, there was Fat People or whatever it was called, starring Jack and Gywnnie. As they came along, all of these movies offered us the opportunity to get excited about "the new Jack Black" movie, but one after another, they all let us down. We might have been pessimistic about School of Rock, too, had it not had a reassuring name attached to it. Richard Linklater.

Say what you want about his sprawling narratives, loosely-woven plots, and shaky cameras, but Richard Linklater is not going to put Jack Black in a movie and not make the most of him. And he sure as hell is not going to make a movie about rock-and-roll that doesn't rock. The question was, could Linklater set aside his usual technique of allowing his characters and plots to meander for two hours and just come out and tell a simple story, in the way David Lynch did with The Straight Story? It turns out that's exactly what he's done. In School of Rock, Linklater is not bashful about introducing and sticking to a central plot conflict: Jack Black teaches soul-less elementary schoolers how to rock. That's your movie. The result may be mostly predictable -- trouble with the principal, falling out with roommate, each kid overcomes his or her most troublesome characteristic, etc. -- but you forgive it because no individual scene with JB and a bunch of kids in it is, in itself, going to be predictable. And this is what seems to have given Linklater the courage to stick to the straightforward story: put the camera on JB and let him do what he does best.

Amazingly, it seems that this is the first time since High Fidelity that anyone has let him do just that. His movies since then have been stilted, jumbled affairs that seemed to collapse under their own weight, or under the weight of the assumption that just having JB in it was enough to carry the rest of the film, even though he was operating under the constraints of bad writing and directors who didn't know how to capture, and then release, his energy. Linklater, though, seems to have figured all that out, and there isn't a single scene in the film that feels like JB was under- or over-directed. Given that JB is in essentially every scene, the movie never loses its steam, and somehow manages not to become tiresome, either. And so it is that JB gets the film that is to him what Ghostbusters or maybe Stripes was to young Bill Murray and what Lost in Translation is to old Bill Murray: a film that exists for him.

Despite being in nearly every shot, JB does not carry the film entirely by himself, however. Joan Cusack (looking and acting eerily like Lorraine Bracco) is pretty effective as the stern-principal-who-eventually-loosens-up, although she's a little inconsistent in some of her scenes (such as when he drops her off after they go out drinking). Sarah Silverman, as the uptight girlfriend of JB's roommate, breathes life into a predictable and obligatory role, and like JB, is automatically funny at whatever she does. I've been wating forever for her to get a shot at a role that is as perfect for her as the one this movie offers JB, but her performance here will hold me over. (Her curse-filled 45 seconds in the opening sequence of The Way of the Gun kept me afloat for six months.) And, of course, there's the kids, most of whom had never been in a movie before, but each of whom is terrific, playing up their cartoon-like caricatures with an unembarrassed determination reminsiscent of Peter Sellers. In other words, Linklater seems to have made a movie that showcases JB without abandoning him.

Some closing thoughts:

  • I don't think it's as good as Bad News Bears, which is pretty much the gold standard for the genre, but my judgment here might be clouded by nostalgia. BNB offered (a) an even greater chasm between the kids and the guy (Walter Matthau) who has to get them to team up to succeed, (b) a more clearly defined obstacle to overcome (the evil baseball team, as opposed to the scantily-defined "Battle of the Bands" in this movie), and (c) a better developed personality for the initially-reluctant-but-ultimately-crucial lead kid (the bad-boy "Kelly" in BNB, versus mini-Martin-Landau here).
  • Don't forget about the innovative opening titles sequence, which features cast and crew names integrated into rock poster and graffiti scattered around a club.
  • The little guitar player resembles a 10-year-old version of a 30-year-old version of Martin Landau (circa North by Northwest) at least as much as Joan Cusack looks like Lorraine Bracco. (Although Amy, below, says his appearance may have been inspired by a certain rock legend.)
  • Boy, was I ever happy to see Nicky Katt (who was subtly great in The Limey and over-the-top great in Full Frontal) turn up in a cameo here as the band member who tempts the kid drummer into his van.
I'll leave it to Amy to untangle the musical references in the film and to offer further analysis. -adm
Actually, I thought the little guitar player (so cute/will be hot in another 7 years!) looked more like Mick Jones at the height of his powers. -amy

categories: Movies
posted by adm at 6:35 PM | #


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