Ghost World (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Did you ever wonder what happened to all those fringe losers in high school?

Their entire schtick consisted of negativity, remember? They hated the teachers because they were superficial and insincere. They hated the kids with good grades because they were robotic suck-ups. They hated the cheerleaders and football players because they were dumb and phony. They hated everyone. And if anyone reached out to them and tried to be nice, they treated that action with contempt.

Now stop and think about it for a second. Suppose you are one of those total and utter losers, and then high school ends. What do you do next? High school is pretty much the only place where you can survive by sitting around all day and making negative comments. No employer is going to hire someone with pink hair and a negative, sarcastic attitude toward everything. Without any way to make money, how can you even move out of your parents' house? Nobody will like you or hire you because you're always either sarcastic or just outright negative. Nobody even wants to be around you. So how do you get on with your life? Aye, there's the rub.

This film is about that dilemma. For the guy who wrote the story, and who clearly had been one of those people, the solution was simple. He went into the business of writing comic books so he could continue to make snide comments about the people he didn't like in high school, and continue to maintain the illusion that even though everyone around him seemed to be happier than he, it was he who was superior. Fortunately for the script, he is perceptive enough to realize that he needed to envision a different fate for his comic book alter ego characters, and he possesses a sufficiently acute degree of self-awareness to realize that he and his protagonists are not just outsiders - they are losers.

There are really only two choices for the chronic loser after high school is over - clean up and stop being a loser, or simply accept being a loser and try to make the best of it. Enid, the goth girl who thinks she has raised irony to a new level, can see before her a role model for each pattern.

  • Her best friend, Rebecca, has decided that she wants to stop being a loser - to do something in her life, and have things that belong to her. She would like to have people treat her with respect, and maybe offer some in return. She'd like to have the money to buy things and have her own apartment. She'd like to have friends, and maybe not have everybody look at her the way one looks at a rotten banana.
  • An older man, Seymour (played to perfection by Steve Buscemi), has chosen the other path - to accept being a loser and to adapt to it. He can see that he's a chronic case -  a funny-looking dork, and an obsessive collector. He can even see that he collects things to substitute for his inability to relate to people. He has accepted it, chosen that path, and has decided to make the best of it.

Enid isn't crazy about following either of those paths, although she flirts briefly with each of them, and considers moving in with each of those characters in turn. She ultimately rejects both. She can't even seem to define just what she does want. She has no concept of what she likes. She can only define the world by the things she dislikes. When asked what she sees in Seymour, with whom she is briefly romantic, she says "he's the opposite of the things I hate".

Yes, I said "romantic." How can you resist a film which casts that buff hunk, Steve Buscemi, as the romantic lead? Buscemi does a tremendous job as Seymour, the loser with self-awareness, Enid's own personal Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Buscemi has a special gift of bringing matter-of-fact realism to offbeat situations and oddball characters. Remember him as the criminal discussing "that new car smell" with the police officer? When Ghost World came out, I felt that Buscemi should have gotten a "best supporting actor" nomination for this role. He really creates a credible and well-developed character here, and unlike the two girls in the script, he is a sympathetic person, and I really did want to see him find some happiness in the end. Unlike Rebecca, he doesn't see outsider status as something that makes him worse than other people. Unlike Enid, he doesn't see it as something that makes him better than other people. He just knows he's different and is resigned to living with it. He has a touch of self-contempt, but no more than any of us, I suppose.

This is an extraordinary, eccentric movie that is not afraid to make the audience squirm. When not squirming, I also laughed quite a bit, sometimes out loud. The movie is cruelly funny in two ways:

1. It looks at the world through Enid's eyes, so it sees all the characters as she sees them. Thus, the denizens of her world are not as we would see them, fully rounded and complex, but as she sees them through her negative lens. That's pretty damned funny, and allows the filmmakers to take hard shots at conceptual art, mass-market restaurants, compulsive collectors, sensitive new-age waiters, porn customers, and a bevy of other targets.

2. It looks at Enid through our eyes, and she is also hilarious, so scornful of everything, yet so much more miserable and lonely than the people she despises.

Ghost World is more than just an offbeat comedy. The film also possesses more than a touch of poetry, and that's a welcome phenomenon in a prosaic world. You have to offer a nod to a major film studio like MGM for assembling this arty look at unlikable outsiders. I mean it as a compliment when I say that it is just about the only film I've ever seen from Hollywood where I wouldn't have cared one way or the other if the main character had found love and happiness or if she ended up getting raped by the Taliban. Enid despises, but she is also despicable. Nobody likes her because she is not likeable, and because she doesn't like anyone else. You might say that she is unloved because she doesn't deserve to be loved. To build a "commercial" film around such a character is pretty damned daring.

If Buscemi were not in the film, I would probably wrap this up by saying that the film is a condescending black comedy for elitists, another aloof, smart-ass cult film with stinging wit and nothing more. It does manage to rise above that level, however, because of the depth and heart written into Buscemi's character and his performance in that character.


DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • four deleted scenes

  • music video

  • "making of" featurette


None in the film. None in the deleted scenes.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3/4, BBC 4/5, 4/5

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDB readers say 7.8 of 10, close to the top 250 of all time.
  • with their dollars ... although loved by the critics, it could never rise above arthouse distribution. (I suppose movie critics are more likely than mainstream viewers to see themselves in these characters.) It maxxed out at 128 screens, and grossed only $6 million.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B-. Even if you don't like thoughtful, non-mainstream black comedies, you may like this one because of the stinging wit and the sheer depth and acuity of Buscemi's performance.

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