SCHOOL OF ROCK
starring Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Mike White, Sarah Silverman
screenplay by Mike White
directed by Richard Linklater
starring George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer
screenplay by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
directed by Joel Coen
by Walter Chaw Maverick filmmaker Richard Linklater takes a break from his experiments in narrative and philosophy to helm what is essentially a mélange of the most tried and true mainstream formulas: the underdog kids uplift (The Bad News Bears, et. al); the inspirational teacher uplift (Dead Poets Society, et. al); the slacker whose best friend is dating an uptight harridan uplift (Saving Silverman, et. al); the burnout loser makes good uplift (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, et. al); and the rebel who reforms a restrictive institution led by an icy task-mistress uplift (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, et. al). Not to say that School of Rock is without its merits, but the whiff of originality--which every Linklater films (and Mike White's, who wrote the script) has possessed to some degree or another up to now--is not among them.
Dewey (Jack Black) is an exhausting ball of manic energy who, threatened with eviction by his best friend (White) and his best friend's evil girlfriend (Sarah Silverman), shanghais one of his pal's substitute teaching assignments at a prestigious pre-prep and proceeds to school his repressed young charges in the intricacies of early stadium rock. At the end of the process there is of course the Big Contest where moral victories are won, if not actual ones, and there is the eleventh-hour crisis solved by an inspirational coming together (most often demonstrated in mass desk-standing), all capped by a heartfelt coda that shows a new direction for our rumpled hero and the little moppets who had the foresight to trust him with their lives and futures.
Black is fun to watch in supporting roles or ten-minute bursts--recent appearances on the Conan O'Brien anniversary special and at Wrigley Field subbing for the late Harry Carey are really all one needs know about the portly comedian, after all, so when he's handed the reins to a feature-length vehicle, the result is akin to a roomful of toddlers hopped up on double-shots of espresso. It's clear why Linklater and White would tackle something like School of Rock, enfolding both artists' affection for professional outsiders married to the questioning of the system in a giant, sloppy embrace; the problem with the picture is that nothing about it seems especially organic: the kids are cute, Black is cute, Joan Cusack is severe and cute, and the parents who want to kill Dewey come around in the end mainly because the narrative strictures of stuff like this demands that they do. And yet, despite the casual swipes at characterization in a sprawling cast (the black girl who belts out gospel like Bessie Smith, the Asian boy desperately in search of cool), School of Rock isn't a terrible film, just one that could have been written and directed by anyone. With guys like Linklater and White at the helm, that sort of anonymity is a tremendous disappointment, and that disappointment is really something like a compliment.
Joel and Ethan Coen's Intolerable Cruelty is also a film that could have been written and directed by anyone (save for one delirious scene where a mace-addled hitman takes a tragic puff off his aspirator), so bland and prosaic is its sensibility. A departure from the brothers' noir obsessions in favour of the Grant/Hepburn screwball model, the picture concerns dapper divorce attorney Miles Massey (George Clooney), fascinated by and smitten with lovely serial gold-digger Marilyn Rexwroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Billy Bob Thornton makes an appearance as a bumpkin, and Bruce Campbell scores another cameo that reminds that I really wish they'd make a fourth Evil Dead film already.
With echoes of the monumentalism of the brothers' The Hudsucker Proxy and the marital strife and misunderstandings of Blood Simple, the picture busies itself trying to reproduce the rat-a-tat dialogue and "I know a man with the voodoo" tongue-twisters of stuff like The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, Bringing Up Baby, and His Girl Friday. Its soundtrack dominated by Simon & Garfunkel and Elvis standards that unforgivably obscure another fine score by Carter Burwell, Intolerable Cruelty is marked by a tossed-off feeling: a distinct impression that America's most viable auteur brats had taken an unfamiliar path with minimal investment for uncertain gain.
Frequent digressions to a pair of subplots that eventually pay dividends (an Aussie soap producer in the prologue, a train-obsessed pervert in the body (Geoffrey Rush and Edward Herrmann, respectively)), and one that doesn't (Julia Duffy doing her best Joan Rivers), hamstring the momentum of Intolerable Cruelty, miring its little vitriols in sentimentality and farce. There is a surprising tenderness to Miles's transformation, credit owed Clooney's inspired performance and the Coens' perpetual ability to cold-cock with compassionate digressions, but the best moment of the picture, one that recalls the Marx Brothers' choreography and sprung sensibility, involves the sort of pug-faced schlub (Irwin Keyes) Mario Todisco memorably played in Miller's Crossing. In the DVD commentary track for The Man Who Wasn't There, Billy Bob Thornton makes the brilliant observation that the logical casting for the dapper, taciturn barber would be Clooney while he, himself, would have been the obvious choice for Clooney's character in O Brother, Where Art Thou; that the brothers have "corrected" themselves for this picture goes a long way towards explaining both the pleasures to be gained from Clooney's deft comic timing (and a courtroom scene that is at once a throwback and a revelation), and the problems with a film that in apparently striving to be accessible and lightweight becomes something, for the first time in the Coens' joint-career since Crimewave, disposable and undistinguished. Originally published: October 3, 2003.