Accentuate the negative.
Enid (Thora Birch, American Beauty) is intelligent and witty, but the sort of intelligent and witty that no one really appreciates. She’s the sort of person who always has some dry remark about the people, places or things she encounters, but her humor flies over the head of most who meet her (and they tend to respond with either confusion or hostility as a result). She’s certainly not the only smartass in her town, but she’s one of the few who is actually smart. She rolls her eyes at the entire world: “Everyone’s too stupid!” she huffs.
Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t have a lot of friends. Her one loyal companion is Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin), who has a similar gift for withering sarcasm but who also tends to be a little bit better at fitting in with the rest of society. The two were inseparable throughout high school, but now that they’ve both graduated and The Real World beckons, they find their priorities differ a bit. Rebecca gets a job, discovers new interests and begins to focus on finding an apartment. Enid… well, Enid isn’t sure what she wants to do.
One day, Enid and Rebecca decide to play a prank on a middle-aged man (Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire) who has placed a personal ad in the local newspaper. They call the man and pretend to be a woman who’s interested in him, then watch in amusement as he shows up, waits patiently and eventually comes to the realization that someone is merely having fun at his expense. However, Enid finds herself curious about the man, and after following him for a while, eventually decides to introduce herself to him.
His name is Seymour, and he too struggles to connect with the rest of the world. He collects a lot of old memorabilia, and has a particular fascination with old blues records (“I’ve tried to pare down my collection to just the essentials,” he says, nodding at his 1500-record collection). He could talk for hours about the print history of an obscure album or the career of a long-forgotten artist, but struggles with more general small talk. He has an aversion sports, parties, radio stations and the modern world in general. “He’s sort of the opposite of everything I hate,” Enid observes. They become friends, and Enid devotes much of her free time to trying to find a date for her new pal.
Ghost World – adapted from the comic by Daniel Clowes, who co-wrote the screenplay – does a tremendous job of capturing the feeling of being alone in a crowded world. It knows what it’s like to be surrounded by people who have no real understanding of who you are and no real appreciation for the things you value. Seymour is a sweet guy, but in some ways he functions as a cautionary tale for Enid: over time, this is who she could become. Both characters feel resigned to the thankless role life has handed them. With biting humor and compassion, Clowes and director/co-writer Terry Zwigoff gently nudge the characters towards some semblance of forward momentum.
Birch and Buscemi do some of their best work here, playing the sort of characters who are abundant in real life but usually only appear in the margins of movies (it’s easy to imagine a film in which Enid is reduced to the role of sarcastic best friend, or a film in which Seymour briefly appears as someone who helps the protagonist track down a rare item). These are such richly-drawn people, and anyone who has ever felt out-of-sync with the world they live in will surely relate to one or both of them in various ways. Johansson also does solid work in one of her most memorable early roles, and there are fun little supporting parts for the likes of Bob Balaban (Gosford Park), David Cross (Arrested Development), Pat Healy (Cheap Thrills), Illeana Douglas (To Die For) and Teri Garr (Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
Ghost World (Blu-ray) offers a fine 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. While this isn’t the most visually dazzling comic book film ever made, the image looks vibrant and healthy. Colors are bright and bold, detail is exceptional throughout, depth is strong and there’s a pleasing layer of natural grain present. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is exceptional, too, giving the dialogue-heavy track more complexity than you might expect and really impressing during some of the more music-heavy sequences. Supplements include an audio commentary with Zwigoff, Clowes and producer Lianne Halfon, a 42-minute making-of documentary featuring interviews with Birch, Johansson and Douglas, an extended excerpt from the Bollywood film Gumnaam (The Unknown), deleted scenes, a trailer, a mini comic book and a booklet featuring an essay by Howard Hampton.
Ghost World is one of Zwigoff’s richest films, and a worthy addition to the Criterion Collection. Highly recommended.