The modest yet redeeming triumph of Ghost World - director Terry Zwigoff's fiction-film debut and his first work since his soul-quaking 1995 documentary Crumb - is the offhand way it brings to the screen a streak of American dark humor that is dour, resilient and unexpectedly infectious.
It's the humor not of American down-and-outers, but of various kinds of American drop-outs - the instinctive skeptic, the doubting Thomas or Thomasina, and most of all the authenticity freak who can't stand commercialism as a value or sanitized comfort as the measure of a good existence. At times, you can think of Ghost World as a more profound female riff on Fight Club, with heroines who want to feel deeply without beating each other to a bloody pulp.
Working from a superb graphic novel by his co-screenwriter Daniel Clowes, Zwigoff creates a heroine in round-faced, bespectacled Enid (Thora Birch), who looks askance at her surroundings, sees through them - and keeps looking. Everything about her is visually expressive. Her thrift-shop clothing ensembles, which rampage through the styles and fads of several decades, demonstrate her search for a style that means something.
Like Holden Caulfield, to whom she has been frequently compared, she yearns for a way of gaining wisdom without losing her innocence. And like Holden, she's too suspicious of abstraction to use those words.
But you may leave Ghost World feeling equally heartened and frustrated. Unlike Salinger, Zwigoff and Clowes don't conjure the comedy and drama that would open up their lead character and suggest the sources of her weaknesses and strengths. Enid's questing comes off as an outgrowth of mere "attitude" - an attractive and iconoclastic attitude, to be sure, but one that still seems as much put-on as earned.
The movie's wispy story takes Enid and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) through the months after high school graduation, when Enid endures a remedial art class and Rebecca starts slinging lattes at a coffee joint. They've had a dream since seventh grade to share an apartment after senior year. But that irritating art class, taught by a self-parodying feminist-cum-avant-gardista (the hilarious Illeana Douglas), distracts Enid from their goal; so does her increasing involvement with a misfit record collector named Seymour (Steve Buscemi).
In the moving, haunting graphic novel, Enid and Rebecca's relationship supplies the glints of insight we need to make sense of Enid's reckless and sometimes selfish actions. In the book, the girls share a devastating crush on a mild, nice boy named Josh (Brad Renfro) - in the film, a minor character. Their friendship breaks up partly because they cannot reconcile their girlhood bond and their burgeoning drives toward womanhood. In a sense, Enid is like Holden Caulfield and the younger sister he protects wrapped into one.
In the movie, the character of Seymour, barely suggested in the novel, takes center-screen. Although he's well written and terrifically played, he skews the focus. Buscemi has never been better: He has the comic poignancy of a Chaplin figure without an ounce of the wetness.
Enid admires him for finding something he likes - actual roots music, country blues and jazz - and measuring everything else in life against it. Girl-hungry though he is, if an attractive lady can't appreciate his idea of art or at least groove to the right songs, he'll blow her off. In the movie's turning point, he gets too involved with a woman he mistakenly thinks might be his dream girl, and Enid rises to his existential defense.
But the way she does it, and the aftermath of what she does, can be perceived as capricious, even cruel; so can the way Enid keeps Rebecca hanging on. And in the end, Seymour is less an unlikely hero than a nightmare figure of a fellow who can't cling to sanity and an original vision.
Zwigoff has an affectionate touch with Buscemi and with both young actresses. Johansson may not be as funny as Birch, but her distinctively laid-back and inertia-ridden relationship to the camera suggests unknowable depths. Apart from out-and-out caricatures like Douglas' art teacher, who prefers twisted hangers or social content to Enid's deft, observant cartoons, the adults in the picture often stumble and fall flat, including Enid's distracted father (the usually inventive Bob Balaban) and his unbearable beloved (the usually delightful Teri Garr, who is downright trashed by her makeup and lighting).
These failures might not matter if the movie were all of a piece - if we were so inside Enid's vision that the movie seemed to emanate straight from it. Zwigoff gives the staging, framing and pacing a good deadpan comic-book feel. But a movie called Ghost World needs the spookily suggestive dimensions that David Lynch came through with in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. In his first fiction feature, Zwigoff doesn't forget to bring the funny. But he doesn't bring enough poetry.
Starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
Rated R (language and sexuality)
Released by MGM/United Artists
Running time 111 minutes
Sun score ***